“Macbeth” Creeps in Its Pretty Face


Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, 2015)

If Mel Gibson (director/star of Braveheart) and Nicolas Winding Refn (director, Drive) met, bonded over mutual admiration of Shakespeare and had a love child, it might look like this new Macbeth. Gibson, of course, knows how to stage a battle or two and is the master at making his protagonist (often himself) suffer masochistic slings and arrows; no one does stylized sadism quite like Refn (well, maybe Tarantino – imagine him as the godfather, then). Visceral in the best way that cinema can be, though also completely nonsensical at times, it may be far from perfect, but is utterly compelling. Starring Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) as the titular psychopath and Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night) as his lady fair and foul, this adaptation of the “Scottish Play” offers startling visuals and brutal violence as complements to the great Bard’s already evocative text in a boiling broth of madness that is ultimately be a hot mess, but a gorgeous one (or, at least, one gorged with blood).

Fassbender and Cotillard are both terrific: his Macbeth is a brooding action hero, strongest when he is in motion; her Lady Macbeth is a serpentine sybarite, best when using her sex appeal to urge her husband to regicide. Together they are quite the power couple – simultaneously beautiful and creepy, like the film – until things go wrong. There is a deep note of sadness behind their power grab, however, as we open on the funeral of their dead child. Director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown), remarkably sure-handed though this be but his second feature, gives us, right away – in a departure from the source – the core tragedy of the terrible twosome: even if they were to succeed, what would it all be for? Or maybe he wants to motivate the insanity that follows. Out of death, more death. Perhaps that’s why Kurzel so often slows his footage down almost to the point of freezing the frame, creating not-quite-still tableaux that presage our final demise.

And death we get! Rather than worrying about seeing a dagger in front of us, we should look to our entrails, from which the blade may sprout. There are two color palettes here: gray and red. Scotland has never looked so beautiful nor so grim. Soot covers everything and everyone, with blood oozing out from underneath. It makes sense, given that this is the tale of a man who kills his king, seizes power, and then watches it slip away as the ghosts of his victims refuse to grant him pace. The spot on the conscience will not go out, and the hands will ne’er be clean, indeed.

So where do things go wrong? At some point, Kurzel – cutting and twisting the material to suit his needs – forgets to motivate Macbeth’s increasing lunacy. Why would anyone follow this man? And having set the bar so high with his wondrous opening, he leaves us suddenly weary when we depart the field of battle for the realm of politics. True, Macbeth succumbs to depression as well as madness, but that doesn’t mean the film has to, as well. By the time we reach the end, never has it felt truer that “twere well it were done quickly.” Instead, the final fight between Macbeth and Macduff (an excellent Sean Harris, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) drags on (in the play, “they fight”), and by this time the visual aesthetic and gore have worn a bit thin. Despite this, I would not only recommend this fresh take on the well-known drama, but recommend that one see it on the big screen, to better appreciate Kurzel’s ambitious – and mostly successful – vision.

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