Medieval films are often caught in a difficult Catch-22. They all follow the same sorts of stories and characters, treading over the oft-worn paths of films — both based on true stories and fantasies — that have come before it. This creates a desperate need for uniqueness, for some element of surprise (or, at the very least, for the story at hand to be told in a powerful, gripping fashion). When directors try to do this, though, as Guy Ritchie did in 2017 with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the result is a film that feels caught between modernism and antiquity. A defining aesthetic is not found; rather, it is muddled.
In many respects, Outlaw King is engaging. It has a lot of elements that work, from taut, gory battle sequences, to lush production design, to masterful lighting and cinematography. Beyond these elements, though, it doesn’t offer much for its viewer that countless other medieval films haven’t also explored. In this way, it is like a beautiful photograph of a lake: you can acknowledge the visual mastery, the composition, and the lighting, but it’s a photograph you’ve seen plenty of other people take, as well.
Outlaw King follows the true story of Robert Bruce (played by Chris Pine), the King of Scotland who has been forced into exile by the English after he is crowned. The film follows his attempt to take back his throne and to save his family.
Now, don’t get me wrong — just because a certain narrative has been explored multiple times does not mean that nobody should tell that narrative. To the contrary, there is no such thing as an original story anymore; rather, we are telling variations of the same stories, constantly reinventing both storytelling and filmmaking in the process. However, there is a difference between taking a well-worn concept and putting a unique spin or aesthetic on it and taking that concept and telling it in the same way other people have.
To further defend director David MacKenzie (who also directed the phenomenal Hell or High Water), I don’t think anything here is outright bad. As I mentioned above, this film is beautifully crafted and fun to watch; I never felt bored.
Still, though, these characters are people I have watched before. The differences between characters like Robert Bruce, William Wallace, King Arthur, or other medieval European figures are minuscule at best. Robert Bruce is a man defined by his kingship, his family, and his desire to retake both things. It’s this brand of shallow characterization that can kill a film before it even hits its stride.
In fact, Outlaw King further exemplifies a key tenant of filmmaking: if your script is bad, very few things can save it beyond a re-write. This is purely due to the differences between what these people are doing in the filmmaking process. It is the writer’s job to create the story, to build a foundation and a set of characters who we will follow. The director’s job is to bring the script to life, to take the words on the page and create images from them. The script for Outlaw King was written by three people (one of whom is director David MacKenzie), and additional writing was provided by two other people. That is a lot of writers working on a single story.
I will say that it is impressive, given how many people were working on this project, how streamlined this film feels. It lays a very linear path and does not stray far from it. It’s unfortunate, though, that these writers could not find a more interesting way to tell this story of rebellion and uprising.
Outlaw King is not a bad film; in fact, it’s one I implore you to watch. It’s slick, brutal, and bloody. For those who have been craving a dose of good, ol’ fashioned medieval war, this is going to be a fun watch. However, don’t go into it expecting much substance, or much character development. When people die, you won’t feel much attachment to them; when Robert Bruce struggles with a moral quandary, you won’t feel the same burden on your shoulders. You will be entertained, but you will not be invested. That does not mean the film is bad, it just means it’s not as good as it could have been.
“OUTLAW KING” ★★★
directed by DAVID MACKENZIE
written by BATHSHEBA DORAN, DAVID MACKENZIE & JAMES MacINNES
Released November 9, 2018 || Rated R || 121 MIN