Tag Archives: David Mackenzie

Outlaw King (2018) Movie Review By John Walsh

Outlaw King

Director: David Mackenzie
Writers: Bathsheba Doran (screenplay by) (as Bash Doran), David Mackenzie (screenplay by)
Stars: Chris Pine, Stephen Dillane, Rebecca Robin 

Has there been a more wronged man in the history of film than King Robert the Bruce? If there is then I’m oblivious to their identity. In fairness, I only know of one film featuring the legendary Scottish figure, that being the equal parts loved and maligned, historically inaccurate, Braveheart from 1995. There was undoubtedly some rousing moments within the Mel Gibson blockbuster that technically could serve as a prequel to Outlaw King, but it heavily romanticised the period and unforgivingly butchered the name of the Bruce.

He wasn’t a calculating, traitorous, coward that flip flopped muddy, medieval battlefields in English or Scottish regalia depending on his mood. No, in actual fact, it was Robert that was termed ‘Braveheart’ and it’s this particular inaccuracy that David McKenzie sets out to correct. 

The romanticism that was abundant in Braveheart has been ditched for the blunt, brutal, viscerally violent reality of 14th century Scotland. There’s not a handkerchief in sight, nor any fictitious French ladies sent north in English convoys. The Outlaw King is, in the main, a faithful recreation of the events that led to the controversial coronation of Robert and the ensuing eight year war of independence with England that followed. Is there some artistic license used, including Edward II appearing for a sword duel in a battle he was never present at? Yes, but a degree of karma is required for non-history buffs, looking for the villain of the piece to get his just desserts. 

The film picks up with the lords of Scotland each pledging fealty to Edward I (Stephen Dillane), in return for titles and land. Aside from the opening 5-10 minutes, which features a cool continuous shot, the film chops around furiously, racing to the point where Elizabeth Burgh (Florence Pugh) is married to the future king, Robert the Bruce Snr (James Cosmo) dies, William Wallace is betrayed and a quartered body part is sent northward for an enraged Bruce jnr to witness. When the story resettles permanently upon Robert, his primary purpose of rounding up support for a war against the English is brought firmly into focus. 

The story itself primarily flips perspectives between Robert, his band of followers and Edward II (Billy Howle). The former goes through an emotional wringer of a journey that takes him up and down the length of the country. His first brush with the Earl of Pembroke’s (Sam Spruell), English forces ending with a cowardly, night time ambush that sends him northward to Islay to regroup. The infamous murder of John Comyn III that set him on the path to be King of Scots also left him with many an enemy in his homeland with the enraged clans looking for every opportunity to stab him in the back, a fact shown almost immediately afterwards. 

Edward II meanwhile has his eyes on emulating his tyrannical father, who was titled the hammer of Scots and historically was a thorn in the side of the nation. Sadly, Stephen Dillane settles for a backseat role in the film, with old age and dysentery hamstringing his character, effectively handing the role of antagonist over to his son. The trouble is, the younger Edward was incompetent, a point that was perfectly portrayed by Mckenzie. He flung his weight around, was a bit of a bastard, but gave me Theon Greyjoy vibes and despite his misplaced bravado, he never truly convinced as a fitting antagonist or felt like a real threat. 

I’ve seen this film described as an overly long, drag by some critics, presumably from the States or outside Scotland. I didn’t think that was the case at all. It seems pretty clear to me that they were expecting something different, perhaps a bigger, more bombastic epic, with huge, sprawling battles, akin to that seen in Braveheart. It was never going to be that kind of film. It focused on the Bruce during the formative years of the post-Wallace independence wars, when he was still learning to adapt into the infamous guerrilla warfare that would come to personify his battle against the infinitely stronger forces from south of the border. 

I actually enjoyed the pacing, the side ventures off to Islay with Angus Og MacDonald (Tony Curran), the re-taking of Kildrummy Castle, the relationship and romance between Elizabeth Burgh (Florence Pugh) and Robert, the extended redemption arc of James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and even the growing impatience of Edward at his sons increasingly forlorn attempts at stemming the uprising.

They married in organically with the main arc, showing the trouble they had in gaining support from the clans, the stark difference between the warring ‘monarchies’ and it allowed me to connect on different levels with the more prominent side players. Douglas in particular was a firm favourite. He was charismatic, funny, absolutely stone mad and he had a highly memorable and violent return to Douglas Castle. Intriguingly, the latter is amongst just a handful of sporadic fights that occur before the climatic Loudoun Hill battle. I recall four in total, off the top of my head, but they’re handled well and they pack a punch. 

Chris Pine worried me going in because the Scottish accent is very difficult to do correctly, especially in a cast full to the brim with actual Scots. I’m pleased to say that his accent was actually decent however.  He didn’t go full Scotty, it was understated and it didn’t take me out the film. His acting ability is undeniable and he combined beautifully with McKenzie before in Hell or High Water, one of my favourite films from 2016 and he’s very good again here. There was times when he didn’t even have to open his mouth to convey the sorrow or rage within and thankfully he passed on the blue face paint. 

The other standouts for me were Tony Curran, Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Florence Pugh. They all brought some different to the table, injecting necessary energy and personality into the story. Angus was the level headed ying to Douglas’ loose cannon yang, whilst Elizabeth had by far the greatest transformation from the young, mellow and innocent figure, into the bold and courageous lady that was standing up to Edward II when an easy get out was dangled in front of her. 

The dialogue was great too, another feature of McKenzie’s films that I’ve enjoyed. It was organic, punchy, funny in the right spots and stirring in others. From Edward’s clever put downs, Angus’ wife’s funny berating to James Douglas screaming “what’s my fucking name?” to Robert giving a short and sweet pre-climatic battle speech. Speaking of which, the battle was very enjoyable, if not quite historically accurate. I particularly enjoyed the ingenuity of using the land against the cavalry heavy, English invaders. It flowed well and was a fitting conclusion to the film.

I can’t round this review up without giving mention to the stunning cinematography. Scotland is a stunning country, with epic scenery. Barry Ackroyd is immensely talented and he captured the beautiful blue seas off the coast of Islay, the rolling valleys of the highlands and the violence of medieval warfare perfectly. The set design was immaculate too, though sadly, the score rather unmemorable. 

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Outlaw King. I’ve been fascinated with the figures of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace since I was young and it’s truly fantastic to see David McKenzie exploring the history of a cinematically, misrepresented, Scottish hero. The fact it was filmed exclusively in Scotland, primarily around Stirling is an added bonus and I can only hope it inspires a new generation to become as equally interested in the period. It has some little inaccuracies, but is well directed by a man clearly passionate about the subject, it features a large and excellent cast across the board, bolstered by three or four standout performers. 

Rating: 4/5

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Hell or High Water (2016) Movie Review by John Walsh

HELL OR HIGH WATER.png

Director: David Mackenzie
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Stars: Dale Dickey, Ben Foster, Chris Pine

A classic cop and robbers tale with a modern twist. Hell or High Water is a pacy, and at times, highly absorbing, neo-western drama from talented Scottish director David Mackenzie. We follow the escapades of two brothers, reunited against the bank that’s threatening to foreclose their families oil rich farm. It’s a simplistic story, that packs a punch, questioning the morality of today’s society, the greed of banks and the human effect of the economic decline in south west Texas.

Very quickly, it becomes clear that the dialogue in this film is a star in and of itself. Nigh on every person with a speaking part has a way with words and a level of wit normally reserved for characters with chunkier roles more central to the main story. Following the first heist, one of the bank tellers is asked the question “Black or white?” by the investigating officer “Their skins or their souls?” is her response. An old man complains “This is crazy, ya’ll ain’t even Mexican” before cheekily responding to a question about having a gun. Even a disenfranchised cattle herder gets to have his say a short while later and does it was some panache. Bemoaning his antiquated profession and sympathising with his kids unwillingness to follow in his footsteps.

Chris Pine gives perhaps his best performance to date as the scruffy, unkempt looking Toby Howard. “I’ve been poor my whole life, till my parents and their parents before them. It’s like a disease, passing from generation to generation” we hear him say. He’s a man with a past and he’s looking to make amends. It’s for this sole reason that he enlists the help of his ex-con brother Tanner Howard (Ben Foster). They face a race against time to save the family property, which if successful, will provide Toby’s sons with the financial security he never had. It’s Pine’s character that devises the plan to rob the banks and he’s the brains behind the brawn of the older Tanner. Famed for his role as Captain Kirk, he couldn’t be more unrecognisable here.

It would be fair to say that the Howard brothers are not your typical bank robbers, only hitting the registers and stealing fairly low sums of money in each heist. They target the small, local branches of Texas Midlands Bank, spread out across the south west of the state in a deliberate attempt to remain under the radar of the FBI. They are successful in doing so and the chase is left to veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his stoical partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). “You may get to have some fun, before they send you off to the rocking chair just yet” we hear Alberto quip to Marcus as news of the heists break. Just weeks from retirement, the grizzled, wily, old veteran, with all the detective traits of a Colombo and the determination of a Harry Callaghan, is in no hurry to accept the quiet life. He sees a pattern in the robberies and persuades his long suffering partner Alberto to join him. Jeff Bridges incidentally, is able to slip into the character of Marcus with consummate ease. Not many are able to do the hardened, grizzly character better than Bridges and he manages to do so whilst providing plenty of wit and sardonic humour to boot.

Taylor Sheridan and David McKenzie really weave a beautiful story together here. Blurring the lines of morality as the movie goes on, the violence starts to increase and things begin to take a turn for the worse on both the perceived good and bad side of the line. His punchy dialogue really brings the film to life, adding an air of authenticity to the bonds of both the opposing pairs, with some cracking banter at times. Marcus continually jokes about his half Comanche partners heritage and Toby takes delight in telling his brother to “Drink up” after he complains about being given Mr. Pep instead of Dr. Pepper as “Only assholes drink Mr. Pep”.

As the film enters its final act the ‘leading quartet’ for want of a better word continue to share equal screen time and a fantastic synchronous scene plays out to the beautifully, melancholic lines of Gillian Welch’s ‘I’m Not Afraid to Die’. Toby and Tanner spend what could ultimately be their final day together, playfully fighting with each other, drinking beers whilst reminiscing and contemplating the day ahead. Meanwhile, Marcus and Alberto, likewise spend their the day and night staking out a potential heist target in almost abandoned town, that harkens back to the ghost towns of the old westerns. A special mention must be given to the visuals during this scene. They are stunning and amongst some of the best in the movie.

Speaking of visuals. Giles Nuttgens does an incredible job of making the south west Texas landscape every bit as much of a character as any of the stars in the film. The use of a predominantly beige, brownish, earthy palette and oversaturated image really helping to emphasis the harsh heat and dustiness of the arid landscape. Nick Cave and Warren Eillis’ score provides slow, contemplative piano and string arrangements with a healthy mixture of country rock ballads from the likes of Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt interspersed between. The juxtaposition between the two creates a perfect balance that really adds some emotional depth to the story.