Justin Kurzil’s red-tinged Macbeth — a weird, out-of-place art flick among the holiday crowd — brings Shakespeare’s tragedy to new audiences. No one saw it coming, but I’m not complaining. It’s luscious.
Macbeth gives the done-so-many-times play all the violence and grit Shakespeare intended (maybe) and places the difficult iambic pentameter in a creepy, misty atmosphere. The movie is melodramatic but cool, and that’s exactly what Macbeth is.
The slo-mo opening battle happens like a Woodkid music video. When the three witches appear, they are Ryan Murphy-scary. Standing in a row, staring blankly at the camera, they transcend the traditional “three witches” image, three hags cackling around a cauldron, and allow this creepy tragedy to feel distinctly modern.
Reinventing the weird sisters is awesome to nerds like me. The witches of Macbeth did not start the “three witches” archetype (the Fates and the Erinyes from Greek mythology did) but they solidified them as staples of modern storytelling. From The Wizard of Oz to Hocus Pocus to A Christmas Carol, supernatural entities meddling in human affairs tend to come in three. I wanted to see the three witches done well, and Kurzil delivered.
But why Shakespeare? Why are we seeing Macbeth? Beyond its gorgeous look, nothing is new here. How new can you make such an old, hackneyed show? It’s a big risk, and all you have to work with is the artfulness of the retelling. Kurzil laid the art on thick, but is it enough to sit through a story everyone’s read and seen?
There’s also the question of whether or not these old plays should ever be put on the big screen. Shakespeare was written for melodrama, which works onstage but lacks the stillness and pacing required of good cinema. The result? Macbeth is lush but cumbersome, pretty yet trudging.
Fassbender got beefed up for the role and descends into madness in classic Fassbender fashion, with grit teeth and drenched in sweat. Marion Cotillard has proved her ability to do sinister characters well and she does it again. Both characters change very little, which is disappointing in a play about how normal people go evil with power.
Without much observable transformation in the characters, the film gives us no space to ask the larger questions that its source material has long provoked. Do Macbeth and his wife turn evil as a result of their own greed, or are they pawns in a grander scheme? By hearing his own future foretold, is Macbeth responsible for his actions? The point is always made that if he had not heard the prophecies made by the three witches, he likely wouldn’t have taken the steps necessary to make them true. Does he control his destiny? Or is he simply a “poor player,” a plaything of circumstance, powerless to change his fate?
Unasked, these questions linger in the credits, barely touched before everything turns red, bathed in blood.