Out of all of Shakespeare's back catalog, Macbeth has perhaps been the best cinematically served, with such Hall of Famers as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Roman Polanski applying their distinctive worldviews to the material. (Polanski's 1971 version, his first film following the death of Sharon Tate, is still an amazingly tangible, all-encompassing ode to mud and blood and smoke and shit.) From the first frames of relative newcomer Justin Kurzel's adaptation, it becomes apparent that his method of putting his stamp on the prose is to, well, ruthlessly pare away much of the prose. While the Big Scenes are rendered with a ravishing starkness, the connective tissue that's allowed to remain tends to fall away into a low-toned dirge. Even those viewers unfamiliar with the source material may sometimes feel like they're flipping through a brutally gorgeous set of CliffsNotes.
The plot, if anyone needs it: Following a battlefield encounter with some notably weird sisters, newly promoted Scottish thane Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) becomes obsessed with his prophesied rise to the throne. Spurred on by his wife (Marion Cotillard), he begins hacking/burning/stabbing his way up the royal ladder, much to the suspicions of former comrade Macduff (Sean Harris).
Fassbender brings a brawny physicality to his first moments on-screen, which makes it puzzling that he then spends much of his performance in a state of apparent shell shock. While the concept of bringing a PTSD element to the forefront is an interesting one, Fassbender too often seems to be just reciting his lines and waiting for the next opportunity to lash out. Cotillard fares somewhat better—her sleepwalking scene, rendered mostly in close-up, reminds you of just what exactly she can do—although, again, there's a curious passivity to this legendarily ambitious character. Even when these two are at their most fiendishly proactive, it's not always apparent what makes them tick.
Shot through a hellish red filter, Kurzel's knack for apocalyptic imagery slams into full focus, while Fassbender locates the vainglorious core that makes the play persist. Scholars and purists may still be left clutching their chests at what has been chucked over the side, but those roaring final moments ultimately make this Macbeth hard to shake. What it gets right is almost enough to convince you that you're watching a masterpiece.