From the grisliest murder to the grimiest battle, there’s some pretty awesome cinema going down in Justin Kurzel’s bloodthirsty, crimson-hued adaptation of Macbeth, a psychological horror show that throws as much chaos, hostility and murder at the screen as you’d dare in a 15 certificate, multiplex friendly release. It’s quite the experience, and while it’s delightful to see somebody try, I remain unconvinced that such a dense, nihilistic, often gruesome movie can really connect with a mainstream audience on any significant scale. Nor do I sense Macbeth getting any serious awards traction, to be honest, though the appearance of the Weinstein clan in closing credits suggests that an Oscars run on the cards. Children get burned alive in this movie. It’s hardly Forrest Gump. The film works best, from my perspective, as a kind of dirty, lurid, ‘midnight movie’ take on an old classic. It has more in common with something like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (check out those blood-red skies) than it does your average period drama. A cult favourite in the making, basically.
Anyway, regardless of all that jive, at its essence, Kurzel’s Macbeth is a gnarly portrait of the Scottish laird as traumatised war veteran, one that strips down the structure of the original text, playing out only the most essential events in a crisp(ish) two-hours. This lean take on an otherwise hefty slab of tragedy means that Kurzel can get straight to the heart of the matters at hand: madness, warfare, patriotism, legacy.
Inevitably, such myopic revisionism results in the film ripping out quite a bit of the poetry of the original play. For instance, instead of luxuriating in the rhythms of the bard, the performers deliver key passages in the garrulous style of confessing lunatics. And for some reason, at important moments when schemes are unfurled for the audience by the play’s most conniving characters, they’re heavily intercut with pretty literal visual representations of the very things being described. Some movies want to show. Some movies want to tell. Kurzel wants to do both. The film’s textual concision sort of works, albeit in fits and bursts, but Kurzel’s lack of subtlety means this macabre film’s cinematic ambitions don’t quite convert into a cohesive artistic success.
As Kurzel proved in his gloom-soaked debut Snowtown, he’s an emerging master of creeping dread, and so it goes here. Macbeth really is the glummest time you’ll have in a cinema. It bathes in doom. It revels in despair. It laughs in the face of nothing. It’s often ridiculously po-faced and serious. Any wit hardwired into Shakespeare’s verse gets lost in a miasma of sorrow and squalor, and much of the film’s action shimmers in the gloaming of a Scotland at war with itself. The film is an existential depression poem.
In this adaptation, the warrior thane starts off mad, and gets even madder, very quickly. There is almost too much madness for one movie. At the beginning, in a feverish melange of throat-slitting and head-chopping, we see exactly what horrors Macbeth has to enact in the name of the crown. Sadly, by the time he’s viciously attacking King Duncan in a spectacularly gory sequence lifted straight from an Eighties video nasty, any sympathy for this particular devil is extinguished. It’s a swift, and irreversible transition from depressed soldier to serial killer.
Macbeth’s rapid deterioration mirrors that of his homeland, and there’s a sense that his reign is very much a necessary evil, a kind of great purge of the old guard before the court can once again be cleansed and renewed. To quote a lesser cultural source, it reminded me of the that incredible Jack Nicholson line in The Departed: “I don’t want to be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me”. Macbeth and Scotland co-exist in a symbiotic, almost parasitic relationship. But when Macbeth’s madness spirals out of his control, and his irrevocably bruised and battered ego is unleashed upon the land and its people, Scotland fights back.
Michael Fassbender is one of the best in the business when it comes to depicting very difficult men, and Macbeth is probably as difficult as you can get. He’s very good here, though I wonder if this intense and paranoid performance is a little too one note. Maybe this is another side-effect of the screenplay’s radical abridgement, but there aren’t many layers on show. In fact, he appears to have exactly two modes, creepy and insane, both of which he deploys with considerable aplomb. But is it enough? Maybe it works for this particular Macbeth, but I sense he’s not even close to definitive.