Outlaw King makes me wish there was an Oscar category for hairiest movie of the year. All the lush beards are working so hard, they deserve some recognition! If only the battle for the Scottish crown had been a contest weighing which side had the wildest manes, all this bloodshed could have been avoided: All hail Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), the titular outlaw king, and his band of merry hirsute boys! But historical conflicts are usually decided on factors other than facial hair, and so instead of a 14th century beauty pageant, David Mackenzie’s Netflix film brings us deep into the mud of the boggy battlegrounds for Scottish independence — with mixed results.
The action begins in 1304, when Scottish nobles have gathered to pledge fealty to King Edward I of England (a deliciously wily Stephen Dillane, a.k.a. Stannis Baratheon from Game of Thrones — there are a lot of GoT cameos; you can basically think of this as an interim season) after eight years of failed rebellion. Among them is Lord Robert Bruce, who bends the knee to the English sovereign despite having a claim on the Scottish crown.
In an effort to promote an alliance between the two nations, Edward offers up his goddaughter, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh) in marriage to Bruce. In a genre not known for being particularly kind to — or even remotely interested in — its women, Pugh is intoxicating, infusing the character with steely confidence and poise. She’s not just a supportive wife who comes to love her husband. She’s a smart person with inner thoughts and convictions, which she demonstrates throughout.
As Robert, Pine is quiet, even aloof, a man who could have been happy raising his daughter (Josie O’Brien) and playing with his large dog had he not been called to be a wartime monarch. It’s easy to root for him, though, especially once he renews his Hollywood Chris cred by not forcing Elizabeth to consummate their marriage until she initiates physical intimacy. But we never really get to know him as a person, beyond those sad eyes that progressively get sadder as he decides his path lies in rebellion, losing brothers and men to try and unite a people who are stubbornly resistant to that outcome. Despite Pine’s good work, our attention inevitably strays to the more vibrant and colourful performances of his supporting characters. One of those is Aaron Taylor Johnson’s James Douglas, a hairy dynamo of anger as he pledges his allegiance to Robert in response to King Edward’s brutal treatment of his family.
And in a movie already known far and wide for having a full-frontal view of naked Chris Pine, Billy Howle is a scene-stealer as the Prince of Wales. King Edward’s shrewdness is in sharp contrast to the boorish insecurities of his own son and heir, whose murderous bloodlust stems partly from a sad need to prove himself as a worthy future ruler to a father who views him as a supreme disappointment. He plays the prince as a disappointed white boy with the rage of a thousand incels, and his insane bowl cut, soon-to-be replicated by Timothée Chalamet in Netflix’s The King, should really receive its own acting credit.
In a way, Howle’s stellar performance works as a metaphor for the film itself. Outlaw King really wants to be a worthy successor to the ruling champion of the historical epic: Braveheart. And it does the absolute most to make that happen.
Mackenzie, who previously directed Pine in Hell or High Water, really commits to the sheer scale of medieval warfare, in all its bloody, dirty, smelly glory. Each battle scene will have you genuinely wondering how anyone might survive the barrage of arrows, swords, axes — you name it — flying around at any given time. And indeed many don’t, including a number of beautiful, glossy horses. But the film punctuates those brutal scenes with gorgeous, sweeping shots of the Scottish landscape our band of outlaws are fighting to hold on to.
Outlaw King, which will be available to stream on Netflix on November 9, is nearly 20 minutes shorter than it was when it first screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. That leaner approach is probably to ensure that people watching on their computers won’t sign off before the end, but the film is better for the trim. Still, it’s the kind of movie that would be a lot more engrossing on a big screen (even if it means you can’t pause during that scene), and despite a very limited awards-qualifying theatrical release, most viewers will probably end up catching this one from their couch. Part of what made Braveheart so mythical in Hollywood canon was the sheer grandeur of the production. Outlaw King has assembled a stellar cast, but it lacks the urgency of why this all matters beyond the lives of the people we’re seeing duke it out.
On the other hand, Outlaw King is the kind of movie that, were it not a Netflix release, I would wholeheartedly rewatch every single time it was on TV. It’s not Braveheart. But it’s also not not Braveheart. And we haven’t had one of those in a very long time — especially one with this many good beards.