In Appreciation of Aaron Taylor-Johnson Taking Over for Ben Foster and Going Full Beast Mode in ‘Outlaw King’
Is Netflix already done promoting Outlaw King? Sure feels like it. I had to scroll through “Popular on Netflix,” “Trending Now,” and “New Releases” until I finally gave up and went to search for the movie. I’ve watched it already; shouldn’t it have been in one of my queues? Or is Netflix trying to purposefully keep me from my husband, Best Chris Pine? What the hell is this?
All of this is to say, please don’t forget about Outlaw King, the latest from director David Mackenzie, who previously worked with Pine in my favorite movie of 2016, Hell or High Water. Back when Outlaw King was still announced, it was supposed to not only reunite Mackenzie and Pine but also co-star Ben Foster, who played the hotheaded, risk-taking older brother Tanner to Pine’s calmer, more methodical Tony in Hell or High Water. That eventually didn’t work out, with Foster being replaced by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. And let me tell you: Taylor-Johnson is bananas in this movie, and his performance is crazy enough to carry this whole thing.
SPOILERS AND STUFF FOR OUTLAW KING BELOW, BE AWARE
Outlaw King begins with this quite impressive 15-minute or so tracking shot, in which Mackenzie basically introduces all the main players—Pine’s Robert the Bruce, a Scottish nobleman who is ending his rebellion against King Edward (Stephen Dillane, Stannis from Game of Thrones!). Edward has a real snivelly and annoying and bloodthirsty son, also Edward, the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle, really reminding me of how irritating he was in On Chesil Beach), who demands that Robert submit to the crown, tries to duel him, and overall acts a fool.
And there’s one other major character of note introduced during that sequence: James Douglas (Taylor-Johnson), son of William Douglas of Douglasdale, who appeals to King Edward for the return of his familial lands now that the Scottish uprising is over. But unsurprisingly, King Edward flatly refuses his request, denying him not only his property but also his name. Douglas accuses the king of “slander,” but the damage has already been done—he’s ushered from the tent and essentially becomes a sort of wandering knight, Rōnin style. (To drive home his point of what awaits any other Scots who try to question him as Douglas did, Edward invites Rob outside to see a gigantic catapult he uses to destroy a castle in the distance.)
The next time we see Douglas, it’s after Rob has seen William Wallace’s dismembered body (the character had more to do in the previous version of the film, but then 20 minutes got cut, so here we are), killed his nobleman rival, and decided to crown himself king as a way to unite the Scots against King Edward. That’s a lot! And what Rob needs now is a right-hand man, a Lafayette (I know the song is about Hamilton, but just go with me) to his Washington, who can help plan their battle strategy. Lo and behold, Douglas appears, throwing down his sword and offering his service as Rob’s “defender.”
What can Douglas deliver? He knows the land, he knows the people, he knows what the English are capable of; when Rob says “I recognize your father in you,” it doesn’t feel like an empty compliment. It feels like Douglas’s father was probably just as crazy as he is, because where else would he have learned these strategies? “I will be loyal to you forever,” he says to Rob, if Rob can restore his land and his name—and to do that, he’ll need to force Edward’s hand in recognizing their sovereignty.
As you can expect, shit gets bloody after that! There is a reason they cast the dude who portrayed stick-in-the-mud Stannis Baratheon to play stubborn-ass King Edward, who refuses to let these upstart Scots rise against him without killing as many as possible! But again, it’s Taylor-Johnson’s feral qualities that add verve to these action scenes; he’s the character the film relies on to clue us into the English’s cruelty. While the rest of the Scottish camp is eating and socializing, he’s practicing sword moves in the woods, preparing himself for whatever threat is coming their way. While Pine has to be the believable kingly figure, Taylor-Johnson is over here attacking dudes with their own chainmail and slitting throats in church on Palm Sunday (it’s so bloody and over the top and great). He takes back his family castle, throws the invading English soldiers down a well, and then invites the castle staff to eat the feast they had been forced to prepare for the invaders—and then he encourages them all to join him in supporting Robert the Bruce before burning his own castle down so the English can’t come back and claim it.
Taylor-Johnson is the live wire the movie needs, not only to demonstrate how Pine’s Robert sets himself apart while performing his royal role but also because the action scenes are so essential to telling this story effectively, to demonstrating the brutality and the bloodiness of this time. (He’s also the only character given any real sexual energy, as he tries to seduce two daughters of ally Angus MacDonald, portrayed well by Tony Curran.) In the final battle at Loudoun Hill, it’s Taylor-Johnson’s Douglas who helps conceive their strategy of using the boggy, marshy land for their benefit, and his habit of screaming his name while attacking the English adds to the unsettling, wild nature of that concluding sequence.
Taylor-Johnson has done this sort of thing before; think of his menacing kidnapper and rapist villain in Nocturnal Animals (a movie I otherwise kind of hated) and his unhinged desire to get Blake Lively back in Savages (uh, another movie I otherwise kind of hated). Like Foster, who he replaced, Taylor-Johnson is cultivating this real niche of walking-along-the-edge brawlers, and he adds an impulsiveness that Outlaw King needs. “Are you a good man?” Douglas asks Robert after he pledges his loyalty to him, and he accepts Robert’s answer that he’s “trying to be.” Whether Douglas himself is good is ancillary. He’s a man out for revenge, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson portrays that violent mission with delightfully ferocious intensity.
Image sources (in order of posting): Netflix/Outlaw King, Netflix/Outlaw King, Netflix/Outlaw King
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