Table Talk: Outlaw King (2018)

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Anton: Outlaw King, the new Netflix original movie, is a somewhat messy, sometimes gripping, and generally entertaining historical epic.

Let’s talk about whether Outlaw King succeeds as a story, how it fares as an historical epic, and what we think of it as part of Netflix’s original movie push.

Is Outlaw King a good movie?

Anton: So what did you think, Aren? Overall, I liked it, although I found the narrative somewhat muddled and it stumbled at a key point for me.

Aren: I think it is good, but no more than that. It has an aggressive pace that makes it stand out from stodgier historical fare, and the battles are really gritty and visceral, so they get the job done. Chris Pine is an appealing leading man and I liked how much the film (generally) stayed true to the historical record, instead of inventing fanciful dramatics like Braveheart.

Anton: I’m glad you brought up Braveheart already, since it’s such an obvious point of comparison to Outlaw King. There are some interesting overlaps between the two films, as well as some significant differences.

Aren: Well, for starters, unlike Braveheart, Outlaw King is curiously slight for an historical epic. Part of this is the editorial streamlining of the film, which we can get to in a moment. Part of it is the repetitive nature of the combat scenes; they’re gritty and entertaining, but they hardly stand out from one another. And most of all, the film has a fairly muted emotional drive, especially when compared to something like Braveheart, which is horrible as a work of history, but great as an epic.

Anton: And it’s incredibly emotional! That’s the thing about Mel Gibson. He was an action star, but he showed a lot of emotion. He cries a lot in movies. Anyways, let’s get back to Outlaw King.

Aren: Considering that Robert the Bruce is Scotland’s most mythic leader from the Middle Ages, I’m a little disappointed the film didn’t do more with its portrait of him as a legendary hero, similar to something like Lawrence of Arabia or El Cid.

Anton: Yes, good point. Both those films are very interested in not only major historical figures, but also in how those figures constructed their legends. More of that would have made Outlaw King so much richer thematically.

Does this reflect our current age? That we no longer believe in larger-than-life figures? Our biopics seem to prefer to cut them down, or at least show their complexities, flaws, and smallness. Robert in Outlaw King is a good and competent man thrust into greatness, but you don’t really get the sense from the movie that there is something about his person that made him extraordinary.

Aren: All in all, it’s a good period action film. But it also seems to have aspirations to be something more than entertainment, which it doesn’t achieve.

Anton: I agree. It’s a decent movie, but it could have been something more.

A Hasty Re-Edit and Hollywood’s New Conventions

Anton: I wonder if that feeling of unfulfilled opportunities that pervades the film owes anything to the film’s production history?   

Outlaw King premiered this fall at TIFF, but then it was recut after the screening, as Indiewire reports. I didn’t see that original cut, but reading about it got me thinking about the film’s narrative and whether it makes sense and holds together as it exists now. I think the movie is interesting for the aims and scope it achieves, at the same time that it exemplifies some of the deficiencies of contemporary big-narrative filmmaking.

So, there’s something stripped-down and lean about the narrative as it stands, with a focus on character development and action: the character of Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) in particular. I mean, it adheres to Robert the way Batman Begins is glued to Bruce Wayne. This is not an historical epic with multiple protagonists. And I think David Mackenzie does a good job with these aspects of the film.

But there’s also something missing about the narrative, which is hard to define, and seems to be more clear when I compare Outlaw King to other big historical pictures from Hollywood’s past.

In my opinion, epic movies today seem to lack the strong command of storytelling—that clarity and almost mechanical precision—of classical Hollywood filmmaking. Consequently, I think they lack some of those movies’ ability to sweep you up with their narratives.

Take Ben-Hur (1959), for instance. Movies like Ben-Hur might have been less historically accurate—and I’ll say “might,” since too many modern movies think that they are historically accurate and fail. Like King Arthur (2004), for example. In the older epics, many things were altered to make the narrative smoother, including history. And it probably helps that the big epics of the 1950s and 60s were long movies. Whereas today, large-scale narrative films that are two or two and half hours tend to feel compressed and muddled. In any case, when you try to summarize their comparative storylines, older Hollywood epics to 21st-century ones, you can tell the difference. I could explain to you in a pretty straightforward way what happens in Ben-Hur, and it’s not just because I’ve seen the movie multiple times. The narrative trajectory is crystal clear. In Outlaw King, not so much. I can give you a gist, but a good summary of the actual plot? No, I actually can’t.

Aren: It’s true. The film actually covers many years in the life of Robert the Bruce, and the First War of Scottish Independence was a decades-long affair, so it wasn’t resolved with one battle or one or two years of conflict. You hit on an accurate complaint about the narrative, which is that beyond the arc that begins with Robert becoming King of Scots and ends with him defeating King Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn and essentially winning Scottish independence, I can’t give you a breakdown of the key twists and turns in that arc. It’s muddled together, which might be a result of Mackenzie’s streamlining of the narrative following its mixed reception at TIFF.

As well, restricting the focus to Robert the Bruce makes the film easy to watch, as there’s not a lot of information that you’re supposed to know beyond what’s happening to him, but I like other medieval epics, like Beckett and Kingdom of Heaven, which follow around multiple characters and don’t just use them as supporting figures in one central narrative. History is not the story of an individual, but many. Beckett and Balian might be the heroes of both films, but these films are almost as interested in King Henry II or Saladin as they are their heroes.

Anton: Even Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is much more complex narratively and character-wise. So, Scott is probably an outlier in regards to my generalizations about epics today. But I’d have to rewatch Kingdom of Heaven to pin down how well its narrative holds together. Whereas you are pretty sure it’s a masterpiece, I think.

Aren: Oh, it’s the best medieval epic ever made. But you have to watch the director’s cut, which is a completely different film than the streamlined theatrical version. It has the old Hollywood sweep that you don’t get in the shorter one. But I digress.

Anton: In Outlaw King, besides the arc for Robert (who doesn’t actually change very much), there’s an emphasis on narrative twists and changes of fortune. I do think this owes to the influence of longform television. So, does all this indicate that we’re now in a period of film and television production when certain kinds of stories, particularly big complex and/or historical narratives, are better served in the form of a miniseries or television show? Are contemporary filmmakers just not able to precisely condense epic-scale narratives?

Aren: I think it’s that the convention of how to tell these stories has changed, not that the long-form structure is actually more befitting these sorts of historical stories. For sure, Game of Thrones and to a lesser extent shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom have made us assume that all medieval-style narratives should be these epic television shows with massive battles and shocking twists and turns in the narrative, but these shows aren’t telling isolated stories in any way, so the television format works.

Outlaw King could have worked as a television series, if you wanted to tell the whole story of the War of Scottish Independence, but it could’ve worked very easily as a film epic, with a clear arc of Robert the Bruce from rebel to king and eventually triumphant liberator of Scotland. As it stands, the film is kind of stuck between the two, which may owe to the fact that Netflix made it and Netflix isn’t great at delineating the difference between its long-form shows and movie productions. (For instance, many of its limited series are really just eight to ten hour-long movies broken up into segments, like Godless and Maniac, while some of the popular movie hits they’ve produced, like To All the Boys I Loved Before, are really just part one in an ongoing series of films that play like feature-length sitcom episodes.)

What exact twists are you thinking of in Outlaw King that smack of television storytelling?

Anton: Well, as I joked earlier, I don’t have a great memory of what specifically happens throughout the film. It’s pretty blurry in my mind. There’s a lot of back and forth in terms of fortunes, and characters racing to various locations. But one example that does come to mind is the emphasis midway on the queen’s escape. That whole plotline is given a lot of time and attention, and it reminded me of a TV episode about how the queen, who we thought was going to be safe, has now been captured by the enemy.

I also think some events near the end try for that TV-style reversal of what we expect, which is stimulating and satisfying when you watch TV, but often deflates larger themes. Earlier, I alluded to a point where I thought the movie really took a misstep. The aftermath of the final fight between Robert and the future Edward II (Billy Howle) almost ruined the movie, at least the ending, for me. It’s not as bad as that one scene in Darkest Hour which diminished that entire picture for me, but it’s in the same vein. It seemed so fake. After all the film’s attempts at historical accuracy and gritty realism, I just can’t ignore the choice to have Robert and the Scots let a defeated, hobbling, lone king walk away, especially when the Scots could easily capture him and leveridge him for victory over the English, or at least a huge ransom. Unless I’m missing some actual historical event I couldn’t find a reference to, I just don’t see it as realistic. Why would they let Edward just walk away, and throw away their chance at victory? It doesn’t make sense as history, and it doesn’t even make sense in the story being told.

Aren: It really makes no sense when you understand the history, which was that after liberating Scotland, Robert actually invaded England to try to press his advantage against Edward II. Robert was not contented with simply liberating his people. He wanted to show his supremacy against the hated English neighbours. So, if he had had a chance to capture and ransom Edward II, or use his captivity to force terms with England, he certainly would have.

The moment of letting Edward II walk away only works as a climactic reinforcement of Robert’s nobility and his lack of bloodthirsty passion, which presumably makes him a fitting king. He has to have mercy on his opponent, according to this line of thinking, but coming after a film that does a lot to stick to the historical record, it’s a baffling departure from that record.

Anton: And it’s another good example of how the movie doesn’t present a character arc for Robert, in terms of his need to change in any respect. His final test is a confirmation of who he has always been. That view of identity and personality seems very 21st-century to me.

Aren: That seems accurate. The idea of confirming your true self versus growing into the person you need to become smacks of contemporary thinking.

Is it a successful historical epic?

Anton: So, switching gears, let’s talk about the film’s approach to history. And, doing so, we’re gonna have to talk about those swans. Ha ha.

But to set things up, I want to say that I appreciated the film’s emphasis on ritual, both religious and profane, as being fundamental to medieval life. That went a long way towards making me respect the film’s approach to history and the past. And on a formal level, Mackenzie brings ritual into the film’s rhythms of editing in interesting ways. Rituals precede most important events in the movie. For instance, he intercuts the crowning of Robert with the ritualistic preparations for battle on the English side. I was also struck by how the rituals for war are performed in churches—and even the later pre-battle party is in the cathedral—showing how Christian medieval Europe was in all areas of life. The Church was the bedrock for life, whether in sprinkling holy water on the marriage bed or praying before going into battle, which are both rituals shown in the film.

Aren: Also think of how Robert only takes the throne by killing his rival, John Comyn, in the cathedral, committing blasphemy. And that he can only be crowned King of Scots after the Scottish Bishop of Glasgow grants him absolution, which forestalls any excommunication from the Pope. The Church has a very large part to play in Robert’s crowning and the clash between England and Scotland, as Scotland was only officially recognized as an independent kingdom when the Pope finally acknowledged it as such.

Anton: That’s a good point.

Aren: I loved Edward II swearing revenge while holding the two swans, because it’s the kind of absurd, ritualistic detail that people almost never put in movies. It’s so alien to modern life that filmmakers usually avoid such obscurities, not wanting to depict the medieval world as so different from our modern times. In fact, works like The Pillars of the Earth and other popular medieval narratives stumble in trying to paint the actions and characteristics of its characters as overly modern—with the focus on introspection and the individualistic, non-ritualistic behaviour of people—so I appreciated that Outlaw King took time to focus on such genuinely medieval aspects.

It has respect for people in the Middle Ages that I don’t think a lot of other films do. Even Robert’s forced marriage to Elizabeth is not shown as an automatic evil, even though it’s arranged. The film isn’t so reductive in its depiction of the past, and is more focused on heroism within its context than some kind of progressive whitewashing of history.

Anton: It’s worthwhile bringing Braveheart back into the conversation here, as we discuss history on film, since William Wallace is mentioned several times in Outlaw King (apparently an early scene with him and Robert that was filmed was left on the cutting room floor), and the public demonstration of his quartered body is a major turning point in the narrative. While Braveheart kind of flounders in terms of history—the Scots didn’t wear kilts at the time, for instance—it is hugely successful at telling a sweeping historical narrative, and in balancing the different character perspectives and plotlines.

Aren: The crazy thing is that Braveheart actually steals so many details from the life of Robert the Bruce to tell its epic story of Scottish resistance and heroism. It gets many details wrong, such as the kilts, the tartans, the face-painting, and even the nature of the combat, which is more similar to Roman battles with the Picts than medieval combat as shown in Mel Gibson’s film, but it does capture the thrilling heroism of such narratives.

Anton: Yes. Braveheart is a far more melodramatic and romantic film, but also more of a romance, in the sense of being like the chivalric adventure stories and songs of the Middle Ages.

Aren: It’s funny that Outlaw King doesn’t have more of Braveheart’s swagger and mythic nature, as most of the superlatives that Gibson’s film attaches to William Wallace were actually things historically attributed to Robert the Bruce. For instance, the name “Braveheart” actually referred to Robert the Bruce, or even the Black Douglas (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Outlaw King) and not William Wallace. I get that Robert Mackenzie and his team of filmmakers didn’t want to retread ground from Braveheart, but it would’ve been appropriate to take some of its grandeur and apply it to this story of Robert the Bruce.

In the end, Outlaw King is a good medieval movie, but I’m not sure it’s a successful epic, since it lacks the romantic sweep that you want from those types of narratives.

Where does it rank amongst Netflix original movies?

Anton: Lastly, I just want to talk a bit about this movie as a Netflix movie. Netflix is definitely trying to produce solid movie content. Their recent release, Like Father, was a surprisingly effective father-daughter dramedy. I thought Mudbound was narratively muddled but emotionally powerful. With Outlaw King, I think there’s obviously an awards lust involved (which I don’t think the film will fulfil), but it’s also economic, right? Netflix has to build up its own content in order to fight off the emerging platforms. Disney’s platform is going to be a leviathan. Will movies like Outlaw King be enough to distinguish them, or is it overreach?

Aren: You actually watched Like Father? You mean, the one with Kelsey Grammer as a distant father?

Anton: And Kristen Bell, yes. I watched it with my wife, and it was better than I had expected. Not great, but not a waste of time. Seth Rogen’s wife, Lauren Miller Rogen, made it. For one thing, it’s cinematography is much better than most comedies—more like a Todd Phillips comedy.

Aren: That’s interesting. You know that by comparing it to a Todd Phillips film, I’m now automatically intrigued.

I actually think Mudbound remains the best Netflix original film, as I would contend that what you found as narrative muddle was a cinematic poetry of an almost Malickian nature. I also think few films do as good a job of portraying the intersections of race, class, and circumstance in a historical context as Mudbound. It gets history correctly, addressing the evils of racism and the difficulties of life in the 1940s without reducing characters to cartoons or smoothing over how the period had different conceptions of what a good person was to what the popular perception is today.

Anton: I actually think that description fits Outlaw King pretty well. I’m referring to the respect for the historical past as inherently different, operating on a different set of assumptions and values.

Aren: That’s true. But I’ll stop talking about Mudbound. Generally, Netflix has been more successful at making documentaries than narrative features; films like Icarus and Into the Inferno and the concert doc, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, take advantage of the small screen and the bingeable quality of Netflix. Most of Netflix’s feature films have not fared as well. I think Mudbound and to a lesser extent Beasts of No Nation and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) are exceptions and have novelistic qualities that I appreciate. They’re prestige films and they are appropriately artistic and serious and successful as films and not just easily-accessible pieces of entertainment. Compared to Netflix’s other original films, Outlaw King has to be on the better end of the spectrum. It’s not as good as Beasts of No Nation, but it’s better than War Machine or Okja, and at least as good as Wheelman or Gerald’s Game.

If we want to zero in on the “Netflix quality” of Outlaw King, it has to be its mixture of directorial freedom (evidenced in Netflix allowing Robert Mackenzie to focus on historical fact and tell a big-budget story in a genre that modern audiences aren’t all that interested in) and narrative shagginess (also a result of Netflix’s authorial leash, which lets directors do what they want, but which often results in films not having a clear identity, and often having too long a runtime, since theatrical engagements are not an issue here).

What would you pinpoint about Outlaw King that makes it uniquely a “Netflix Original Film?”

Anton: Outlaw King reminded me of some of Netflix’s shows in terms of its style, particularly their dramatic thrillers, like Bloodline or Ozark. They all have gritty yet exquisitely-lit cinematography. An emphasis on realistic people put into extreme situations which test them. But there’s also something about that strange blend of authorial freedom and indefiniteness to so much Netflix content. Works full of references to other works, with some striking and artistic aspects, but also not entirely their own thing. It’s hard for me to pin down the idea at the moment, so I’ll hold onto it.

Aren: It’s because at the end of the day, Netflix mostly makes content, and not films per se. It needs stuff to fill all the categories for content, and Outlaw King now fills their need for a historical epic. The burden of providing the artistry and the originality lies on the filmmakers, and filmmakers are not always up to the challenge.

I appreciate that Netflix gives filmmakers I like large amounts of money to work with. But they’re not the greatest curators of content. They have a catch all approach that encompasses anything and everything film-wise, so their films inevitably have a bit of this bland, almost obligatory, approach as well.

Outlaw King is good, but it’s not as distinctive a feature as I suspect it would’ve been had it been made in a different day and age.

Outlaw King (2018, UK/USA)

Directed by David Mackenzie; written by Bathsheba Doran & David Mackenzie & James MacInnes and David Harrower & Mark Bomback; starring Chris Pine, Stephen Dillane, Rebecca Robin, Billy Howle, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.