Having scored a critical and commercial hit with his multi-Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, David Mackenzie returns with his biggest film to date: a muddy, bloody action film about Robert the Bruce starring Chris Pine as the Scottish monarch in waiting.
Outlaw King — which just received its European premiere at the London Film Festival ahead of its Scottish premiere in Edinburgh on Friday — might sound like an ersatz Braveheart, but it’s actually a far stranger film than its Netflix-backed blockbuster pedigree suggests.
Kicking off in 1304 with a brilliantly executed sequence that elegantly brings us up to speed on Scotland’s beaten-down status at the hands of Edward I, the film charts Robert’s violent political awakening as he comes to understand the need for strong leadership.
To play him, Pine — whose accent is fine — adopts the same kind of gruff, almost passive form of machismo that worked so well for him in Mackenzie’s aforementioned neo-western: quietly scoping out the lay of the land as he comes to the realisation that playing by the rules doesn’t get you very far when the whole system is rigged.
Initially that makes Robert less obviously heroic — and Pine less obviously engaging, particularly as he wrestles with the reality of being the sort of nobleman who has the courage to make a stand but the wisdom to accept defeat when things seem hopeless.
Yet even when he accepts the call to fulfil his destiny and assume the throne, Mackenzie doesn’t seem particularly interested in valorising this hoariest of hero’s journey tropes, hanging it instead on a moment of cold-blooded murder.
It’s an approach that can make Outlaw King a bit of a jarring watch.
It may has all the characteristics of a sweeping historical epic — glorious camera work, revenge-filled plot twists, lots of speechifying, an English villain with a hipster bowl-haircut — but the film doesn’t feel emotive or romantic.
Quite the opposite.
It feels like an anti-epic, a film intent on undercutting the way these stories can be too easily turned into simplistic myths.
The film certainly keeps at us at a bit of a distance, which feels both perverse and admirable. Mackenzie and cinematographer Barry Aykroyd (The Hurt Locker) go all out to depict the battle sequences in visceral and forensic detail, yet the moments that linger longest are the smaller ones where he lets cruelty erupt on screen so quickly you almost don’t register how horrifying it is.
In this sense Outlaw King feels like the antithesis of Braveheart — something symbolised by the way William Wallace makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in the form of a severed limb.