"Macbeth", as Jan Kott has noted, "begins and ends with slaughter. There is more and more blood, everyone walks in it; it floods the stage." Kott's reinterpretation of Shakespeare through a modern lens no doubt influenced both Peter Brook's King Lear and Roman Polanski's Macbeth, both released in 1971. But while both films are among the best Shakespeare adaptations, Brook's film is deliberately inert, while Polanski's film is wonderfully, terribly alive. From the opening scene, where the play's three witches congregate on an empty shore before departing into the gray, oppressive horizon, Polanski influses his Macbeth with a palpable sense of menace. This is fitting given his faithful but distinctly personal take on the material; if Shakespeare's play is ultimately intended as an affirmation of the inevitable restoration of order over chaos (and, by extension, the triumph of good over evil), Polanski presents evil as an endless, impenetrable cycle.
The film's visual canvas is at once beautiful and repellent - every frame is filled not only with blood but also drizzle, mud, shit and grime against images of the Scottish highlands (actually Wales) that are chilling in their blank impassivity. This is mirrored in a Macbeth (Jon Finch) who seldom reveals his emotions and instead remains chillingly inscrutable as he is transformed from a noble thane into a murderous, corrupt king. The decision to underact the character creates a protagonist for whom evil is not the result of madness but rationalization - from a pragmatic standpoint, Macbeth's decision to murder Duncan (Nicholas Selby) makes a perverse kind of sense, which makes the senseless violence it spawns all the more incomprehensible. And with Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) portrayed not as a calculating femme fatale but as a blithe impetuous young woman who lacks a moral barometer (her famous delivery of the "out damn spot" speech in the nude underlines the childlike vulnerability beneath her cunning). When she manipulates her husband to kill the king, she's like the worst result of centuries of "daddy's little princess" paternalization, craving power without even beginning to understand its significance.
Polanski is unflinching with Macbeth's extensive violence and brutality - the film is at points a catalog of the things that steel can do to human flesh. This could have easily veered into grand guignol territory, but Polanski isn't after shock so much as matter-of-fact observation of our tendency towards carnage. The film's extensive use of handheld cameras and natural lighting give it an immediacy that extends to its supernatural scenes. This is most notable in the scene when Macbeth is confronted by Banquo's ghost; by at once presenting the ghost as tangibly present and subtly creating a feeling of temporal dislocation, Polanski touches the uncanny (Kubrick was likely influenced by the scene, which is echoed in The Shining's Room 237 sequence). If the horrors of the film seem more psychological than supernatural, it is because Polanski refuses to let Macbeth (or us) off the hook that easily; when Macbeth arrives at the famous "tomorrow and tomorrow" soliliquy, detached from his people and his own fate, it becomes clear that, to Polanski, the world is only as good or evil as we each perceive it to be.
By replacing Malcolm's final speech in favor of a coda that bookends the film with the witches (those purveyors of senseless mayhem), Polanski denies us any sense of real resolution - the film doesn't end so much as stop. While Polanski's films are characteristically bleak, it's not much of a leap to assume that, as the film was made so soon after the senseless murder of Sharon Tate, the director couldn't find a way to justify a final note of hope. The strength of Polanski's films (unavoidably echoed in his often tortured personal life) is his ability to stare directly into the abyss with open eyes. While his more recent films suggest that, like Shakespeare when he wrote The Tempest, Polanski has made some sort of tentative peace with the world around him. Whatever the case may be, his films from Knife in the Water to The Tenant represent an unparalleled examination of dread, and if Macbeth is his darkest moment as a filmmaker, it's also a thing of shivery beauty.