Stealing away during her first season run on Legion (dreamily mainstream comic book Hamlet), Aubrey Plaza (no script, no contract, no paycheck, encouraged only by a newfound devotion to art, a door opened in her after playing too many approximately edgy antiheroes) stars as the maddest version of Hamlet ever committed to screen. Borrowing lighting equipment, fractured halves of sets, and character makeup (baggy-eyes, short, jet black, slicked-back hair degenerating into a maniacally hackled mane) from the show (in which Plaza gobbles the scenery, prancing avatar of another supervillain), sequestered on a backlot, greenscreened and lit as if the lighting is a character cracking slowly in tandem with its star, each frame maneuvered by scrims of color or lack thereof, something akin to Sin City mashed into German Expressionism (used and damaged sets), piecemeal chronologies / operatic staging of Titus (but smaller, meaner, at times a Harmony Korine sleazoid rap, or an Eric Wareheim horror music video, tied with the ending of Stroszek in perpetuity), with Seijun Suzuki production design and blocking by Hal Hartley, the insomniac crew (off the clock, out of unions, drowning in the heat of their rigs) lose their minds as well, in the spirit of this animalistic, demonic interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, provoking an air of authenticity matched by a grainy, over-the-top viciousness only captured onscreen in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (dinner scene) or Marat / Sade. When Plaza screams a line, the focus-puller tends to momentarily falter. Boom mikes capture her screeched and echoing fractals (she singlehandedly retools pentametric rhythm to sound as if someone were stabbing (being stabbed by) five simultaneous foes) like a lost radio station.
Hopping out of her sex, past the theory laid out in Edward P. Vining’s book The Mystery of Hamlet (Hamlet as a bratty teen lady – Asta Nielson resemblance notwithstanding), Plaza plays Hamlet as a resentful, cynical Klaus Kinski-aping nihilistic future school shooter. The stateliest prince of the land (requiring the comeliest actress, her beauty amplified beyond physicality by an off-kilter demeanor, distinguished above the irreverent flakiness of her profession (and poorer studio affairs), a true Artaudian willingness to disappear into the role’s necessary mental horror, risking, at all costs, her ability to return, safe, to a pampered life) metamorphosed by the crime against his king into a reverberated irony (90s Liquid Television and Ren and Stimpy style interludes, Natural Born Killers edits, culminating Tarkovsky-length takes, many an esoteric moment sustained (early Altman) by grueling shock gestures causing faulty electronics (Friedkin and Lynch, shots jerking within flame)), into a symbol of his land reinstated now as rot (Plaza’s cadaverous pallor creasing through a decay both allegorical and intentionally self-applied for jocular intimidation (green T.S. Eliot party makeup) over the course of Hamlet’s downfall (or frenzied victory)). The heart and soul of Denmark is rampant with disease, perfected by it, the skein of which Hamlet will heap upon his shoulders like an airfoil scoliosis, a kamikaze pilot coasting into his own family, a parody of cures, a hellish pantomime of filial hugging, the most gymnastic abortion a populace could betroth – because (one level of interpretation out of thousands) the chores and maintenance of all citizenry reduces everyone to an even more tumorous version of Hamlet, ambushed by static from the TV set in our pussy, dopaminergic phone glanced at as a sole, vague call to action. Plaza never plays Hamlet lost, naïve, or given to the benevolently rounded psychology of the god who wrote her part. She hurts herself willfully and for real, with unforeseeable twentieth century malevolence. A doctor has to follow her around on set. He is in love with her. Everyone on set, male or female, is in love with her. They experience her mocking laughter (stroked out and deadpan as she can be, a graduated tantrum), a Greek chorus (all crafts, classes, and cultures sucked and dictated at full capacity into the rollicking skull of Shakespeare’s genius). They are the Horatio under her skirt (she wears torn black tights, is having a dagger tattooed forehead to chin before the final duel, but her flesh is too patchy, overrun with filth, sloughing off). During several scenes, the crew audibly weeps in solidarity for her madness (before mingling with it), so many lives chalked up to greed (neon chalk outlines fill the darkness, a gothic synth score pounding), the frustrations of revenge – the artisans, hovering fathers to the artist, weep for Hamlet to taste the blood he’s earned: pecked out of his own veins and forthcoming from those of many another. It’s an apprenticeship via bath salts, carnage by proxy, blue balls adjacent.
His father’s ghost (played by the director) introduces itself like a mixture of Japanese Ringu / Pulse creepily rewound Noh and Kabuki theatre influenced, Butoh / Burmese dancing nightmare logic beings, spliced with overdone Insidious type stinger blast jump scare pop-outs (imaginary friend in Martyr’s), and extremely verisimilitudinous gore (Cannibal Holocaust with modern, X-rated, Irreversible-level CGI technology – he is stuck nude, the poison gnarled through his cock in a scaly, always dripping (blood and pre-cum) priapism boner (anatomical as early Cronenberg). The gangrenous ear pulsates black fluids, waxen concoctions that bring the ghost insurmountably torturous jags of pain evident in every line. When Hamlet sees this one hundred percent of his childhood is extinguished (Hamlet, very young, is now divorced of age, all law, and sexual desire (though his manners leave him sexualized against his will, like a Tim Burton ghoul girl)), where he may have clung to one percent of his innocence, any sense of compromise or humanity becomes (at his kindest) a mere question, a distancing yarn batted by a ravenous kitty (Plaza, feline Cleopatra, sexy Daria, lightyears ahead of her toon cat voice over, feels so ginormous you forget she’s as petite as her Ophelia). His coldness dwarfs PTSD. It is a premature death of the nervous system. A homicidal, uncontrollable derangement against the concept of life (faith, family and state-bound duty) eradicates itself behind his eyes – through one lingering shot of Plaza’s (striking, dynamic, kinetic, wickedly multitasking) face.
Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet is a brilliant modern interpretation (Hamlet, year 2000, delivers “to be” at Blockbuster Video – Plaza slashes her wrist with Gertrude’s jewelry (Sophocles shout out and not a special effect), smearing blood on the camera lens, using the heirloom to close her twinkling gash), ditto Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are played less as Beckettian rejects or stoner buffoons, more as sociopathic Bret Easton Ellis characters, amped up Patrick Batemen-s, a hint of knowing menace, a suggestion that they are aware of their being duped. It is perhaps their coke addiction acting as an enervating distraction, less a general idiocy that sends them off. They could have been worthy enemies for Hamlet, if they lacked Scarface (they watch it nonstop, rapping ineffectually) ambitions. Polonius farts in his pool. He’s a living Billy West voice (played by Doctor Phil wearing a beer hat), a Sam Raimi subversion of The Three Stooges (filmed like the Evil Dead entity, the wraith of mediocre imbecility). His son Laertes is an extra stoic Hamlet, almost as striking, dangerously focused, his rage nearing, but trumped and foiled, by Hamlet’s. Some part of him is still human, respectable. Hence his lack of vision. A little commonplace blood passed down from dad, though Polonius’s offspring surpass him by far.
If Hamlet’s beauty is here a fading facet of who he was, prettiness disguising his grit under layers of unadulterated hatred, Ophelia is the purest, childlike, ultra-feminized vision of their former union. She’s the face her country wants on posters, its best child, made of albino berries, newly fertile, vulnerably supple, devoted to Hamlet, deeply alarmed, wanting to help however possible, smart enough to recognize, but unwilling to accept, that there is no answer (except roundtable genocide for the bloodline). Ophelia becomes Hamlet’s dimpled scraps (she’s curvy, think the girl from Lady Macbeth), objectified in a way she may no longer partake in, even a little. Hamlet pulls up a chair and destroys her line by giddy line. No mistake: it is a murder, a gangland execution said with the same venomous whisper poured down his father’s sinuses (in stereo for the audience of her eavesdropping progenitor, who lets her suffer for info). From the point of view of a wearied, revenging melancholic prince, Ophelia’s snitching house allegiance is perhaps forgivable in a kid, another confusion of her trusting heart. Hamlet cannot stop assassinating that troublesome artery of hers, the sublime, spider ecstasy of unraveling your victim (she’s his virgin all over again), mutilating himself alongside her (nothing left in him to feel the pain. Ophelia, on the other hand, not yet hijacked by the trauma that careens in Hamlet, is unprepared to become prosperously hardened by this lofty degree of abandonment – if you moderate someone’s (someone who needs (beyond lust: needs) you) enchantment until your reluctant presence degenerates into a compromise (a dismissive gibe of your potential), homicide is kinder. He did love her. When he could. He never feigned his feelings, otherwise lying that he did, which lends the unspeakable brutality to follow a grislier weight. Hamlet flays Ophelia’s brain across a private alphabet of hell, letter by letter, (and she guiltily lets him, hoping, in vain, to crisscross neuroses with her man – she can weaken herself to his loss, doubling her own, because she still knows what love is, staying cognizant as every ounce is stolen from her), fucking her one last time, without consent, without needing to undress (at least there would have been a solid violation to point at afterward, had he stung her body, ending it mercifully quick). Imagine Romeo sitting Juliet on his sword and talking the same smooth game about light in windows (a perverse betrayal of young, open, defenseless love). He puts this bitch down for the crime of having met the blithering inkling of a man he once was, the babydick son who allowed his king to be tickled while napping. The scene is played devastatingly graphic (through performance alone), drawn out, personal and tragic, hours long, a catalogue of his insanity, the complete mental deconstruction of a life (the brainwashing from Parallax View, an operation in Seconds), as Ophelia contracts Hamlet’s tilted worldview, forced upon her unerringly, his hypothetical reluctance losing out to his evil indulgences, an unceasing Satanic possession (amplified by Claudius, existing in him (some lighter form) since birth), the power of unraveling someone who has subordinated herself to you with unconditional affection – and she is first-degree murdered by Hamlet, willingly, purposefully, hideously (opposite of the Sir John Everett Millais painting) smashed to death on the moated rocks where chamber pots get emptied, suckling the castle’s shit off a stone forever, through a fractured, toothless jaw (haloed by her teeth) dreaming only of flowers (the dipshit pansies her schoolgirl crush exposed to her as a con, daughter now of errant feces, everything tainted ironic, jaded – that Hamlet never cared, alienated abjectly from how their lives used to fit together, that that’s her senseless world now, forever – doesn’t matter if he may have cared a single second, their line of credit went defunct and it held hands with reality) and her lover’s voice.
Scenes of violence are inspired by the New French Extremity, Kristeva-influenced corpse abjection, the ripped mannequin stupidity of large wounds, Gaspar Noe’s rictus, spasms at times Takashi Miike operatic, other times like real footage from some sinister illegal file sharing bootleg snuff on a dialup modem. The ending of Dumont’s Twenty-Nine Palms sustained, Darren Arnofsky’s shattering frame (Hamlet teases his high heel along the praying visage of Claudius, sick with glee, not wanting to spoil the orgasm too soon, dragging it out for the very Alfred Jarry-influenced pitfall play), Fellini in fast forward, Polanski’s Revulsion, volume eleven. Hamlet jerks Polonius’s intestines through the curtain hole, plays with him, drags him willy-nilly, licking his mom – about to kill her too, about to defile the corpse with her crinoline. He markers exclamation points on the queen’s fat and curdling tits. Claudius, wearing a skin-mask of his square-jawed father, a cannibal mime king, a rampant double (Lynch again, or Bunuel, maybe Kieslowski in brief tranquil moments) impossibly empowered, juts loose, and wags Gertrude’s tampon in disapproval. The ending, scored against real child autopsy footage (a la Men Behind the Sun) and the remixed sound of trains crashing, places the few who attend its screening in a hospital, nursing terminal and undiagnosed illnesses. The director, a first-timer with an unsearchable past, originally hoped to sell his masterwork as a miniseries (heavily edited (not censored, there’d be too much to cut), it is still over ten hours long), before things became detached. Afterwards, rumors of the troubled production (that the director cornered Plaza, attempting an affair, most of his eyebrow being promptly bitten off, the sought-after climax accomplished anyway, despite, or due to, the wound, both of them straightening up and finishing the scene, his blood pooling into the viewfinder) coupled with Aubrey Plaza’s unhinged presence before the industry insiders who witnessed what anyone refused to believe was mere performance, began fading everyone’s career from public consciousness. Once the initial interest died down (promoted as another kooky show with female-positive casting, the director, a taciturn (later a suicide) Marcin Wrona type (labeled a misogynist for depiction alone, long before mocking today’s dueling, Polonius-laden idiocies of vaginal headgear and #notallmen on his platforms) being interviewed under assertions as such by a hack journalist, paused a long while, and spat in the woman’s face), the finished film was blocked or buried, giggled about by the soulless yuppies that accidentally sponsored it.
Shakespeare scaffolds in every big meaning at once, a schizophrenic hodgepodge controlled with godlike vision. He scalped god so delectably the two are indistinguishable, borrowed his tongue so often one began swallowing the other, composing even his literary detractors, the skeleton of postmodernism in its fledgling horror, the godless hell of plays inside meta plays, a fingernail of the archetypes dipped into nihilism, just one region the all-encompassing bard explored, exploded. This film reconciles the diluted (by schools) tenets of French theory, picking their noses in the general direction of Shakespeare, etc. (such is his canonized girth, to quell his own enfant terrible rebellions inside the weaponry of his bosom, emasculating what came before, what followed, cuckolding artists (not an overly difficult task) with their own muse), faltering in favor of societal bric-à-brac, and re-re-subverting the contemporary crime of aesthetic hierarchy. The aim was to toss down the mighty jissom strand of Shakespeare so his more demented orphans could poison the well, as it were, praising Marlowe’s hyperbolic, gloriously lacerating cardboard nasties (cheers to Harold Bloom and G. Wilson Knight). Using the better methods of its origin to revenge bastardized theory politicking against the imagination, the propaganda of any citizenship falls away, finally disabused of whichever traditionalist (in the fifties) sneered at you for stumbling over some rule. Both vile hands, unshackled, now clap together, coloring in Shakespeare’s blood. The staunch morals and political conscientiousness of Goethe and Voltaire, honed as they were (do-gooders, future Twitter exemplars), are proven populist by contrast – to this nonsensical oracular onslaught of style over meaning (language surpassing intention) and iambic falderal (if we’re so dumb Shakespeare’s scope appears to us as gibberish, people were always dumb, they just listened better with their bodies) felt and connoted harder than any intellect could. Visionary death throes inkblot from the spine, a passionate chemical mishap, a backfiring hypnosis. Shakespeare, finally freed from prestige, napalmed from the academy (where we’ve kept him imprisoned for millennia). Fat off the spice of references, a bakery of homage, like the original, yet entirely its own, Hamlet, starring Aubrey Plaza – an exculpatory pleonasm keyed on culture, appropriately exhumed nigh and ne’er.