Director Justin Kurzel’s 2015 adaptation of Macbeth is the Scottish play at its best: deeply wicked with a brutal sense of immediacy. Michael Fassbender’s turn as Macbeth proves raw and violent, leaving an audience used to the macabre scenes of HBO’s Game of Thrones shifting uncomfortably in their seats. He does not simply kill King Duncan; he slaughters him. He does not simply execute Macduff’s family; he burns them alive. But this violence is purposeful. Kurzel draws us into Macbeth’s torment as he slips towards deathly fate, his mind “full of scorpions,” and refuses to let us leave unscathed.
Paired with Fassbender’s fire is Marion Cotillard’s ice as Lady Macbeth. Her cruelty is soft-spoken but savage, reminiscent of Rosamund Pike’s Oscar-worthy performance in Gone Girl. Compared to other Lady Macbeths, Cotillard’s feels more equal to Macbeth’s weight on the stage (or screen, in this case), serving both as the viper poisoning Macbeth’s ambition towards murder and as a conduit for the audience’s horror when we all realize, as she says, “what’s done cannot be undone.” This dual role is shouldered well by the actress, whose subtle shift from conspirator to witness underscores the murky line between free will and destiny in this vicious landscape. The witches hail Macbeth’s future as king, but it is only by his and Lady Macbeth’s hands that the deed is done. Could they have chosen otherwise when magic itself has spoken?
“Yes,” Kurzel’s adaptation seems to say as each decision is carefully weighed and debated. This is not an act of destiny, however self-fulfilled. Theirs is an active choice to breed the future in violence.Despite its setting in medieval Scotland, Kurzel’s film is far from escapism. We may not have to fight with swords or serve our local laird anymore, but anyone living in the Western world has been shaped by violence. Kurzel’s own fascination with Western brutality feeds into the film, turning the Highlands into a mirror of the worst of the world today, “an environment that has borne tragic people because it’s completely corrupted by violence.” As murderous as Macbeth is, Kurzel does not let his path meander towards death without reason. The very first shot of the film shows Lord and Lady Macbeth burying their son, and their spiral out of control, Kurzel explains, comes from “a place of grief or loss…as opposed to the hunger for power.” In some ways, this makes them more recognizably modern. For the Macbeths, violence is almost cathartic, a tourniquet for the child they mourn. Violence is not without reason, not at first, not until it drives them mad.
Our ambitions may not lead us down Macbeth’s murderous path, but a quick glance at the news warns that his course may not be as distant as we hope. According to Kurzel, that’s why we turn to Macbeth again and again: “I think there’s a precipice that we stand on looking down on it, and it’s paper thin. We know we can’t come back if we jump, but we’re drawn to it anyway.” While common sense will keep most of us from killing, Shakespeare’s characters are never hollow shells of action. Macbeth’s heart becomes as bloody as his hands, and it is that inner visceral violence, and the sense that we have no control over it – that it is simply our fate or destiny – that we are all in danger of.
“Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.” So prays Macbeth as he begins his descent towards evil, resonating perhaps too closely for many of us. But while Kurzel’s film may not be escapism, it allows us to escape from Macbeth’s doom by reminding us that no matter how unmovable destiny seems, every step along that path is an act of free will. Fate did not raise the knife to Duncan. Fate did not send men to kill Banquo and his son. Macbeth did. And if we’re willing to watch, to keep our eyes open through his blood-soaked self-destruction, maybe light will shine on our own black desires and remind us that everything is a choice. Maybe whatever we’ve done or wish to do can, in fact, be undone.
Parabola’s next issue, Free Will and Destiny, will be published on November 1, 2015. Macbeth will be released in the U.S. on December 4th, 2015. ♦
Kurzel, Justin. “Cannes: Justin Kurzel on His Vision for ‘Macbeth’ and Fascination With Violence.” Interview by Nigel M. Smith. Indiewire. 26 May 2015.
Leigh, Danny. “Macbeth Director Justin Kurzel: ‘You’re Getting Close to Evil’.” The Guardian. 24 Sept. 2015.