Rated R for violence and general creepiness. I'm going to throw my wife under the bus for this one, despite the fact that she was mostly right. This is partially the first R rated movie my nearly ten year old saw. (She only watched about a third of it, so take that into account.) My wife wanted to watch it and we questioned "How bad can it get?" While I think the R-rating might be a bit much, it would be a very intense PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Joel Coen
I'm writing this as my students take a test on Hamlet. You might think I'm mentioning this as a fun co-in-kee-dink, but it actually ties into one of my main thoughts about the movie. See, The Tragedy of Macbeth is less than two hours long. We're studying the full, unabridged Hamlet. Even the kids who are into it are in the camp of "It's a smidge long." Besides the fact that it is R-rated and I could never show this movie in my Catholic school, despite the fact that it is a fairly faithful adaptation of Macbeth, I don't know if I'd want to because it is so abridged.
Listen, there's something absolutely beautiful about the fact that this is a condensed version of Macbeth. As a huge Shakespeare nerd, I love when we get new versions of things that I had already absorbed. But I get it. Sometimes, I'm just not in the mood to sit through a really long Shakespeare play. An hour-forty-two is a pretty great length. And I'm going to go after the Bard with this comment: some scenes are not necessary. While teaching Act II, scene i of Hamlet, I have to apologize. None of that scene comes into play for the rest of the story. It's not even great character development because we get who Polonius is before and after that moment. It does nothing but remind us that Laertes exists, which is silly because we just saw him a few scenes before that. When I was in Macbeth, I have to imagine that there were scenes that were totally unnecessary to the story as a whole.
But this leads me to an interesting argument: Maybe Shakespeare plays need to be aggressively long. I'm going to state that I adored The Tragedy of Macbeth for the performances and the imagery. Like, it crushes. Absolutely crushes. I get why Denzel Washington is up for Best Actor because it's the best thing he's done for a long time and he's a pretty great actor. (My wife found his performance okay. Mr. Washington, if you are reading this, my wife is wrong and be my friend.) But the one thing that we don't really get from a full length version of Macbeth is the slow transition into corruption. We don't get a lot of time to know the good man that Macbeth starts as and how ambition transitions him into a madman. Instead, we get the vibe of power corrupting being such an important moment. I always liked Macbeth because it is complex. Considering that this is a story that is so hinged around the idea of fate, there's something aggressively human about Macbeth's choices and how he deserves his own downfall. It's not like this movie fails to grasp that. It's just not as nuanced as a full length version of the story would be.
But then again, it would be boring. Again, I love the stage production. But what Joel Coen does with this movie is create a story where the visuals and the performances are so tightly crafted that it becomes a near perfect adaptation of this idea. Getting a smaller runtime is almost an appropriate sacrifice to the film as a greater whole. Yeah, we don't get that slow decent into evil. But what we do gain is something that is far more important: we get a Shakespearean play that isn't boring. I'm sure many of my students would disagree if I showed it to them, but I'm right and they're wrong.
The film's messages on fate are really interesting. Part of me is going to analyze the original play because the film and the play are inseparable. I teach lots of stories about fate for a guy who doesn't really believe in fate. But I find fate to be so interesting. Why Macbeth works is that we know that literal fates come to the protagonist telling him what will happen. But we get mad at the eponymous character for ensuring that fate plays out against him. We know that none of the events of the story would really transpire without an insight to the future, but it still feels right to judge Macbeth for doing what he did. I'm going to go into Lady Macbeth in a second because Frances McDormand slays. But we have these moments of two people just jumping into these awful futures for success. Now that the Hamlet test is over, my students are talking about how second semester senior year doesn't matter. They're very grade-centric and now that grades have less of an impact on their futures, they've gone full-blown senioritis. But that's Macbeth in a nutshell. Given access to success, he abandons all pretense of what he believes in and sells his soul. Like how my students abandoned the pretense of education in itself, they are willing to do anything for status.
I always have this idea in my mind that The Tragedy of Macbeth is about Lady Macbeth is more important than the male Macbeth. In this version, I have less of that going on. I get that Lady Macbeth is potentially more ruthless than her husband, but it definitely feels like a collaboration when it comes to murder. She is always on board, but I find it interesting when she yells at her husband for not leaving the knife in the proper spot. It leads to her madness and eventual suicide, but it's Macbeth who has the distance to go. Lady Macbeth wears her need for career and success on her sleeve. That's what makes it so haunting when her body is found on the bottom of the stairs. It's the notion that there's a line in the sand that no one can see. Because Lady Macbeth is so far gone to start with as a character, that line is crossed quickly. Maybe a lot of the cuts came to the Lady Macbeth character in this version because I don't feel like McDormand had a ton of time to get the character there in a nuanced way. But she's such a powerhouse of an actress that I almost didn't care. She's a tank and I loved it.
So there might not be a perfect version of this film. If you shorten it, it takes away from nuance. If you do the full thing, it can get a little much. But when looking at The Tragedy of Macbeth, everything works for what it is. It's a strong version of the movie that is haunting while maintaining the supernatural themes woven within.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.