Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
Netflix is currently fighting a battle on at least three fronts. Even in the wake of a huge number of freshly launched competitors, the streaming giant has a serious advantage in the war to carve out and retain a sizable paying audience. Its owners got into the streaming business early, achieved a high rate of public awareness, and built a strong user base. Its second front — producing and owning its own memorable, original content to secure its success, irrespective of the whims of studio licensing departments — has also been ambitious and largely successful. Today, Netflix is investing billions of dollars in buying and making titles and then marketing them into name recognition.
But its third front — achieving legitimacy as a production studio among audiences and its more established peers — has been more elusive. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu were once considered illegitimate upstarts in the film world (and they still are in some sectors, considering the Cannes Film Festival’s anti-streaming position earlier this year), but they are rapidly becoming seen as just another kind of standard studio. But Netflix’s rival Amazon Studios beat it to the first Best Picture Academy Award nomination for a streaming service in 2017, withManchester by the Sea.
Apart from a few more minor Oscar nods, Netflix struggled to have the same kind of impact on film that it’s had on television. Many of the releases it heavily billed and oversold, likeBrightor theCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonsequel, were disappointments. And the films it’s quietly bought and slapped onto the service without fanfare, likeThe Cloverfield Paradox, have left Netflix looking like a dumping ground for studio castoffs.
The service is also facing a fundamental problem: for its films to be taken seriously by the industry, they need to play in theaters long enough to qualify for awards. And for them to get widespread distribution, they need to play ahead of their online release, instead of launching on both platforms on the same day. Netflix understandably doesn’t want to undercut its own service by forcing people to leave home to watch its movies, but that same move has made theater owners reluctant to work with the service. Theater owners boycotting Netflix films to protest day-and-date simultaneous releases has forced the company to buy limited theater access (in industry parlance, “four-walling” its films), and consider acquiring a theater chain outright to get around owners’ reluctance.
The predicament leaves projects like David Mackenzie’s historical epicOutlaw Kingin an uncomfortable zone. The Netflix-financed film is the definition of a prestige project: a grim, expensive visual epic that’s more admirable than enjoyable. Given its vast, echoing Scottish vistas, its immense and bloody battles, and its virtuoso filmmaking ambition, it was clearly designed to be seen on the big screen and to command respect for the team behind the scenes. Netflix is planning a theatrical release — necessary, per Academy regulations, for a film that wants to compete for Oscars — but the scope of that release is still unclear. And the streaming service is inevitably still going to be caught up in the conflict between how to best serve its paying audience and what’s best for its profile and recognition as a legitimate film studio.
While Netflix has, in the past, settled for short theatrical releases in a few major cities, it remains a deeply frustrating solution because the people who do have strong appetites for a relentlessly grim historical saga likeOutlaw Kingare probably going to want to see it live up to its full potential on the big screen. Possibly more than any Netflix original movie to date, it’s a swaggeringly huge film that demands to be seen on a screen that fits the size of its story.
What’s the genre?
Historical drama. Much in the spirit of films likeRob RoyorBraveheart,Outlaw Kingis a battle-by-battle tour through a specific era of intense and bitter combat. In its opening, it starts to feel like a cinematic answer toGame of Thrones, with a tyrannical ruling faction met by behind-the-scenes intrigue for the crown. But before long, it’s just a muddy slog from one terrible massacre to the next, building up to a vast and horrifying battle on an emotionally shattering scale.
ButOutlaw Kingis an unquestionable R for the extreme wall-to-wall violence, in which men are hacked apart, gutted alive, speared, stabbed, and sliced in a ghastly profusion of ways. The final battle is a draining clash of bodies — particularly the bodies of horses, who die in vast and grotesque numbers in this film.
How can I actually watch it?
Outlaw Kingis slated for Netflix release and some form of theatrical release, likely limited, on November 9th.