David Mackenzie’s Scottish war saga Outlaw King opened September’s Toronto International Film Festival to muted, occasionally belittling reviews, which felt to me like looking not one but a hundred gift horses in the mouth — horses, I should add, that had to writhe around in mud as actors playing English soldiers tumbled about them. (A closing credit assures us that “no animals were harmed,” which is a relief.) Scotland’s Highlands, Lowlands, black mountains, and glistening lochs look more sublime than I’ve seen them onscreen — though still not a patch on how they look in life. As Robert the Bruce, the defeated Scotsman who, in the early 14th century, led the battle against England after first pledging his troth to Edward I, Chris Pine has a mythical handsomeness, and his legendary pickle shot is doubly admirable given that most men emerging naked from frigid Scottish waters would look down to find a pale blue acorn. (Pine didn’t shrink from his task in any sense.) The exceptionally pretty Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) with her wide-open face and husky voice plays Pine’s brave young English bride (a marriage arranged by Edward I that actually works out), who remains loyal to him despite hanging for months from the side of a castle in a steel cage. Robert also has an adorable daughter who’s all smiles until people around her start being drawn and quartered. The Battle of Bannockburn, one of the most decisive of all time (it has a pride of place in a book I own, Robert Overy’s A History of War in 100 Battles) is staged as it reportedly happened, at horrifically close quarters in boggy, peaty muck mixed with gouts of blood as horsemen ride straight into wooden pikes. I suppose what I’m asking is, “What’s not to like?”
One thing not to like is that the movie — shorn of 17 minutes since its Toronto world premiere — has gone straightaway to Netflix, where all those lochs and mountains have shrunk to the size of your monitor. Fie on Netflix! I know that this is how most people see films nowadays, but the business model deprives much of the country of the option of having a good night out at the multiplex, where an audience can drink in that magnificent scenery along with ridiculously large sodas. Worse, wonderful movies like Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life — which should have had a chance to build an enthusiastic following in theaters — quickly disappear amid the hundreds of other offerings. The company has backed down on putting Alfonso Cuarón’s magnificent Roma on its site from day one, but the film will still hit your home screen long before its natural theatrical life would have ended.
Back to Outlaw King: The defense admits that the characterizations aren’t nuanced. Robert’s chief antagonist is the future Edward II (Billy Howle), here with an especially ghastly bowl cut. He’s far less epicene than in Marlowe’s Edward II, never mind Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, but he still makes pointless attempts to appear traditionally manly by challenging Robert to pointless duels and hissing pointless insults like, “It’s unfortunate you had some sentimental notion of fighting for the people.” As usual in historical biopics, events are absurdly telescoped: You’d think the Scots won their war after a single battle. A scene I saw in Toronto in which Robert goes to see the fugitive rebel William Wallace (Gibson played him in Braveheart) has been lopped off, so the first we see of Wallace he’s, well, lopped off — reduced by three quarters, to be exact, an arm and drooping flesh hanging unceremoniously from a stake. This is the final straw for Robert, who shares the grim news with his Solomonic father just in time to see the old man die (“I made a grave mistake in trusting Edward …. ahhhgghhh”), after which Robert promptly enlists his brothers and fiery redheaded pal Angus (Tony Curran), Lord of Islay, in a renewed fight. Despite disemboweling the leader of a rival clan in a church, Robert convinces the clergy to crown him king. He wears his power humbly, as strong, handsome men in movies do.
What makes it easy to overlook the clichés is Mackenzie’s strong, handsome style — which in his case, admittedly, is not worn humbly. Early on he signals that there will be some but not a lot of CGI cheating. His opening shot lasts nearly a dozen minutes, in which the camera finds Robert surrendering to Edward I in a dark tent; moves out with him into a muddy field, where Edward’s son makes his challenge; travels back into the tent; and then emerges into the light once more for the king to demonstrate a nifty new boulder-hurling machine that takes out a whole castle turret at one go. Mackenzie’s touch is not as varied as in Hell and High Water (he doesn’t have the latter’s script, with its rich sociological underpinnings), but the build to the climactic battle is stirring. “I know you all as men,” says Robert to his small but determined army, “but today we are beasts!”
That battle really is beastly. I’ve heard the criticism that the frames are so packed and muddy that you can’t really tell what’s going on, but for once the jumble is intentional. The pikes skewer rows of men on horseback, whereupon the hacking and slashing and screaming begins, the blood misting the mise-en-scène. Outlaw King has a wild card — a really wild card — in Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Lord of Douglas, whose family the English humiliated. He’s so wild that as soon as he reconquers his castle, he burns it to the ground for spite. In battle, he screams in exaltation, and just when you wonder how he’ll top that, he screams again, even louder, now drenched— sopped — in gore. That you won’t get to see that in IMAX is a war crime.