At a glance, it would be easy to mistake Outlaw King as the anti-Braveheart. Both are about the First War of Scottish Independence, both feature Robert the Bruce as a major character, and both have William Wallace make an appearance—albeit to wildly different effect. Whereas Mel Gibson imagined the kilt-wearing rebel as a “warrior poet,” David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King depicts him as a desperate, wide-eyed nut literally falling out of trees. As the film surmises about this medieval form of mania, “Wallace is more of an idea than man.”
And yet, it is easy to see Outlaw King has much of the same thoughts on its mind too, if only regarding Robert the Bruce as its subject of worship. Aye, the Netflix film which enjoyed the coveted opening night spot at the Toronto International Film Festival begins as mildly deconstructionist of Hollywood visions of Scots in revolt—even with its own Hollywood star in a dashing if underserved Chris Pine—but the movie really only starts landing its blows when, like Gibson before him, Pine is actually delivering said concussive strikes between wrathful speeches and horses on spikes. The result is a film uneven in its sensibilities, but with the kind of grisly gusto that war movie-gorehounds have long been starved of at the multiplex.
Taking place mostly in the interval between Wallace’s execution and Braveheart’s epilogue, Outlaw King opens with a breathtaking tracking shot on a Steadicam that may in fact be the film’s highlight. Disguising a loch-full of exposition and its careful recalibration of Robert’s initial surrender to King Edward I (a sublimely Neolithic Stephen Dillane) as prudence, the extended sequence tracks Robert from his bent knee and lowered eye to a muddy, ostensibly friendly duel outside in the dreck with a sniveling Prince of Wales (Billy Howle). It even last so many minutes as to make way for the King to show off his massive catapult, which even after gaining his peace pact he still fires once at the Scottish castle in the distance. They did spend three months building the damn thing.
The film could have used more of such theatrical subversion, particularly during the languid first hour that sets the stage for the actual story: a gruesomely violent Robin Hood-style tale with a Scottish king on the run and, eventually, then the attack. Until that time, the film shifts frequently between the early moments of Robert’s rise with the dutiful quality of a higher budgeted historical reenactment, complete with the notable lack of bite. Despite centering on a man who was able to unite the clans to his cause after Wallace’s failed insurrection—and who began so by murdering his rival for the throne inside of a church—Outlaw King has a diminutive view of Bruce’s ambitions, unafraid to have him dig deep into the mud of Loudoun Hill but still shy about his motivations or ambitions being anything even vaguely medieval.
Hence a lot of scenes of weddings and funerals, knights and oaths, and an intriguing but underdeveloped romance between Robert and his much younger, nigh child bride Elizabeth (Florence Pugh). Embracing the unnatural discomfort of arranged feudal marriages and their age differences, Mackenzie has Pugh resemble more a big sister than stepmother to Robert’s young daughter of his first marriage (Rebecca Robin). And Pugh cuts a bold path through the film’s boys’ club, offering a refreshing counterpoint that also avoids being anachronistic. Yet she is still destined to be kept out of the film’s proverbial tree house, spending most of the second half of the film in various states of duress as the Prince of Wales marches on her castle, and Robert takes to the woods and then the sea to survive the bloodshed around the crown he’s claimed.
Nevertheless, this is ultimately where the film most succeeds. It is during the war that the picture seethes with a visceral brutality that is more blunt about its disembowelments than the half-dozen or so Ridley Scott pictures that have painterly defined “ancient war epic” in this century, while still avoiding much of the fetishization that Gibson bathed in. Then again that level of savagery in front of the camera not being matched by a fury behind it can often leave its cruelty appearing also crude in a movie that tonally tries to have it both ways.
Much of this boils down to a straightforward and uninquisitive screenplay credited to five writers that wants to follow Robert into battle but not up the hill. This leaves Pine in an awkward position as he goes the full-tilt in the film—including with a brief nude scene that is sure to be a moment destined for movie trivia nights—but finds little in the way of a fighting spirit behind him, at least until its rousing climax.
The film’s final moments on the fields of Loudoun Hill, where Robert the Bruce’s fighting 500 stand their ground against Britain’s 3,000, is as good as almost any medieval slaughter ever put on screen, and for audiences who are restless from a decade of mostly toothless action spectacle that could be enough. However, this Scottish war film is unlikely to compete with Braveheart in anyone’s mind, for at its best it is only so much war with rarely any poetry.
Outlaw King was the Toronto International Film Festival opening night film. It will be released on Netflix on Nov. 9.