‘Outlaw King’ Review: Going Medieval in Embattled Scotland
Posted November 8, 2018 5:22 p.m. EST
Why do moviemakers insist on telling historical stories when they’re really just interested in costumes and war? There’s nothing new about the abbreviated history you find in “Outlaw King,” a monotonous slog through the life and brutally terrible times of Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), a Scottish noble who fought — and fought — the English. At least in old Hollywood, filmmakers would also try to entertain you amid the clashes and post-combat huddles, giving you something more to watch and ponder than this movie’s oceans of mud, truckloads of guts and misty, unconsidered nationalism.
The whole thing is a letdown, especially given that the last time its star, Chris Pine, worked with director David Mackenzie, it was on “Hell or High Water,” a neo-western written by Taylor Sheridan that had ideas and characters to go with its genre moves. Mackenzie is one of three writers credited on “Outlaw King”; it’s evident that its problems started on the page and were so deeply ingrained that he never found a way to direct his way around them. The overlong, battle-heavy two hours (the movie has been trimmed since its festival run) also suggest that he was too in love with playing general by proxy.
The recurrent churn of soil, blood and bodies largely seems to be the point, even if the presence of Pine and a few other fine performers nods to the movie that might have been. Pine of course plays Robert and offers an excuse to watch “Outlaw King” whether he’s staring thoughtfully into the picturesque Scottish distance or expressing alarm, grief or determination. These modes indicate the limitations of the character, although Pine recurrently manages to dig deeper into Robert than the dialogue does. He puts flesh on the man by tapping into his humor, longing, dread and gentleness, qualities that convey the story’s most painful stakes better than any battle.
Alarm, grief and determination also shape the story, its relative lulls (with family and friends) followed by organizing and spasms of violence and so on. It opens with Robert and the other Scottish nobles — once led by an unseen William Wallace — licking their wounds, having recently been routed by the English. The enemy invaders in turn are led by King Edward (the characteristically excellent Stephen Dillane), a ruler whose perpetual disdain for the rest of humanity periodically swerves into disgust. In other words, “Outlaw King” more or less picks up where Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” left off; to that end, Wallace’s legend and one of his body parts put in appearances here.
Robert and the other nobles make uneasy peace with Edward but are shortly pushed back into violent rebellion, which is where Mackenzie seems happiest to have them. There are periodic cutaways, including to Robert’s new English bride, Elizabeth (the appealing Florence Pugh), whom Edward marries off for diplomatic reasons. Pugh helps elevate this thin character, furnishing Elizabeth with enough of an inner life that you, like Robert, miss her whenever they separate. The attempts to invest Elizabeth with a little overly modern-sounding feminist resolve fall short, though, and are reminders that historical fiction rarely knows what to do with the little ladies left at home.
Mackenzie does nice, tight work now and again, mostly in more intimate sequences, but too many scenes drag, and his fetishistization of violence proves numbing. In one, a gutted, dying man’s entrails spill to the ground; in another, screaming horses and men are impaled on spikes. It’s telling that while the story turns on nationalism, the movie feels untethered from life. It takes the Scottish desire for sovereignty for granted (also: the English are greedy and pathologically sadistic). Yet like many movies of this type, it never engages a simple yet profound question: Why would human beings, especially the lowliest, willingly die to be ruled by a king named Robert instead of one called Edward.
Rated R for extreme medieval violence. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.