There’s a certain and quite specific degree of difficulty reviewing a film that has for a long while existed in the public domain, no longer a festival darling, critic’s screening or DVD/online screener for journalists to collectively fawn over or dissect like a disgruntled high school biology student – maybe even turn the film itself into a battleground of polarized, spirited debate. There’s always the fear of repeating arguments made more than once over – particularly from journalists with a higher level of clout than yourself – to keep your own writing distinct, but it’s best to remember that the omnipresence of such points shouldn’t completely restructure your own piece, as the writing style and personality you individually imbue through the medium of written word should play a significant role in helping familiar points remain fresh. But then you start worrying about whether or not reviews for [insert film here] have past their moment of peak cultural relevancy, and while such varies from project to project, you can’t help but obsess over arbitrary search and IMDb popularity chart metrics, anyway, ever the servant to the almighty Click God.
There’s also an unspoken difficulty about where to start a review in conjunction with the relevant film’s strengths or flaws, particularly if the film has a considerable amount of either that equally, respectively feel as though they are the key issue, saving grace or shining light of achievement with which you can effectively set the tone for your piece. A film goes at its own pace, progressing and unfolding the story with its own – or borrowed, often enough – fingerprint and even when you may not be actively searching for any of three, a thought hits you as if it were a divine revelation sent from God, and you ponder and ponder it until another intellectual spark ignites, and suddenly you’ve found a new talking point. At a certain point, you almost begin wondering if thinking ahead to the writing process and how you’re opening sentence will begin are overriding or distracting from the viewing experience, though there will always be enough words in the world to convey a singular idea.
If you were thinking the opening to this review in particular has been rather disjointed and containing a distinguishable lack in background details regarding David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King, rest assured, for I was simply trying to symbolically express the overly fragmented nature of its own narrative, one of the very things, along with pacing, Mackenzie and Co. sought to fix after a less than stellar opening at TIFF. Nearly 20 minutes were precisely hacked off, a bit unlike the film’s representation of William Wallace’s dismemberment, and while many of the cut scenes describe plot points the film needed no more of, from an outsider’s perspective, you can’t help but wonder if any of those scenes might have, in your view, been the missing piece to mentally completing any one of the film’s emotional thrusts or thematic focuses. Probably not, as it’s rare that one solution solves an entire string of problems, but still it might have been worth fantasizing over the possibility of time travel – and affordable flights to Toronto, along with grifted press passes.
By all accounts, most filmmakers aren’t afforded the same mulligan luxury Mackenzie was, though perhaps it was to be expected in this particular circumstance. Not only has Netflix completely bought in on the prospective financial gains of releasing their own original films, particularly the indie fare they can snap up on the cheap for easy distribution, featuring enough recognizable faces to eschew attentions away from the – most of the time – sheer dearth in quality, but also they’ve been further and further wading into the murky pool of big-budget blockbuster types to more firmly compete with Hollywood for maximum eyeballs, whether it be Bright ($90 million), The Cloverfield Paradox ($45 million) or now Outlaw King, a once-thought Oscar hopeful ringing to the tune of a crisp $120 million, surely a passion project of Mackenzie’s culminating five years of intense effort. Whatever Netflix paid for distribution rights, they simply couldn’t afford to let bad word of mouth continue, and while it seems the general consensus has improved, there’s still too much holding the film back from claiming the prestige glory it could have.
When initially watching the film, you suspect Mackenzie’s intentions might have been respectably grand rather than indulgently grandiose, belying what such a price tag occasionally suggests; in other words, to craft a narratively straightforward war epic with the thematic vitality and cerebral urgency requisite of any war film, period piece or not, addressing ambiguous topics such as the nature of power and even more complex ones like the fraught history of English-Scottish relations. The further it progresses, however, the more you realize it embodies the poster-child for films executed essentially by screenwriting committee, with all of their archetypal narrative structure, flow and contrivances intact. Five different individuals, including Mackenzie, are credited as writers, and throughout, the film plays out as if it were strictly kept to the bare essentials – and whatever fictionalizations it could get away with – of history as a creative compromise, intermittently hinting at the various ideas and plot-based focuses it could further explore with greater discipline and unanimous approval, yet choosing none of them so that everyone exits the writers’ room not entirely frustrated or pissed off.
Becoming stuck to and reluctantly submitting to the inevitable formula of Hollywood and historical mythmaking – or perhaps revisionism from a prideful Scot’s perspective – is one understandable thing, especially when a higher budget often means appealing to a greater portion of Netflix accounts and even when, in this case, a more formulaic story means a complete abandonment of wartime nuance (Scots = rebels with a cause, English = psychotic brutes), but it’s another thing when the creators still believe they can wring adequate subtext out of scenes nakedly present to either emotionally serve the hero-villain binary or continually move the plot at an expedient pace. So much of Outlaw King seems as though it’s overly eager to reach the conclusion, when it can justifiably allow itself the all-out, sometimes gross-out chaotic war spectacle viewers expect from such a film. In the meantime, precious undercurrents are left disappointingly underdeveloped, mere cogs in a relentless wheel in no rush to slow down, and which the filmmakers can qualify as part of the film’s tonal complexity to rationalize a sort of cinematic bloodlust.
The battle scenes, particularly the portrayal of the Battle of Loudoun Hill, are certainly well-executed under Mackenzie and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s watchful eyes, yet you can’t help but sense Robert the Bruce’s (Chris Pine) growth as a leader and even Elizabeth de Burgh’s (Florence Pugh) intriguing perspective entail a mere fraction of what’s left behind. In terms of the former, the first act certainly makes out as if the rest of the narrative will detail how Robert grew from a commander who happened to be royalty to an entrusted King others would willfully serve, yet the film continues as if expecting us to buy into his stock without providing sufficient thematic muscle, or even much of arc. He’s simply a king who infrequently faces life or death adversity, and neither his character nor Pine’s performance extends past being a relatively mute, respectable ruler. Not to mention the film leaves yet another fabulous performance from Pugh by the wayside, providing her nary a significant circumstance during which we’re allowed insight into her constitution. For a while, her presence offers an important forthright contrast to Robert’s restraint, and then suddenly the narrative treats her as if she is simply there.
In fact, the idea of grafting any semblance of theme, subtext or even subplot onto this kind of generic, reflexive fit of storytelling by way of merely recounting events, rather than examining the people at the heart of them, is also something that’s simply there, and because it’s only in idea form, it’s difficult to argue it even manifests itself at all, drawn up by the wish-fulfillment whims of each viewer wishing to grasp something on which they can chew. Aside from production value and visual style – the opening long take is a stellar thing of beauty emphasizing the inner, almost downbeat reluctance of Robert and the other Scots to pledge fealty to Edward II as well as war’s seamlessly amalgamated dichotomy of formality and brutality – Outlaw King doesn’t have anything else to savor. It takes less ambition to symptomatically or even consciously raise a myriad of notions regarding honor, power and custom than it does to meaningfully incorporate them, though perhaps it is indeed merciful that they were collectively suffocated by the thronging mass of violence and statecraft that would have failed less in even the weakest season of Game of Thrones.
And yet, the film doesn’t wholly fail, either – at least, the stench of its being a relative letdown pervading bedrooms and living rooms isn’t as odious as it might have been inside the Princess of Wales Theatre. It’s entertaining enough to prove bloody melee combat full of bearded men maniacally yelling and grunting in each other’s general direction is a decent enough distraction for a few minutes until you realize you’re wasting the rest of the time spent, though if a film this thematically and narratively modest were the intention, you could hardly deny Mackenzie and Co. at least a patronizing pat on the back. It passes the time even if it doesn’t enrich our lives or understanding of Scotland and England’s deep-seated cultural conflict, and most importantly, isn’t – any longer, in the eyes of many critics – an objectively sprawling mess – perhaps the only reason in this instance why I’m satisfied with the inability to travel back in time.