When we think of William Shakespeare, we think of flowering prose, light and dark romance, and heart-wrenching drama. Titus Andronicus, however, is another beast altogether, one that happily rests in the realms of horror, taking the most extreme reaches of Shakespeare's tragedies and then shooting it to a whole new and ghastly level. It is, in fact, so extreme that many believe that Will could never have written such pulpy, bloody horror fare. But that's what makes it so good.

It's a story that lives in how the viewer receives it. While a dark and pensive filmmaker might see despair, and offer a bleak and soul-destroying treatment, Titus Andronicus is also so horrific that it can't help but be campy. This is what Julie Taymor embraced when she filmed Titus in the late '90s, choosing to merge theatricality with despair to create a visual, moving, scary, and fun look into bloody Andronicus' downfall.

Eleven years later, we know Taymor as the wild visionary some try to reign in. She faced a slew of problems with Across the Universe, to the point that the rumor mill said she considered removing her name from the project. But Titus was just the right fit. Her incessant theatricality is the perfect match for the violence and gore riddled through the story, an absurd tale that T.S. Eliot once called "one of [the] stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written."

The film (and play) is riddled with just about every horror imaginable, all of it the aftermath of Titus' stringent commitment to duty. He ritually sacrifices his captive Tamora's eldest son, to make up for his own losses, and finds that every subsequent duty-filled and honest decision he makes helps Tamora enact her bloody revenge. Murder, rape, disemboweling, limb removal, decapitation, live burial, cannibalism, and assisted suicide run wild.

At times, the horror is campy, not just from Taymor's twists to the play, but in Shakespeare's words themselves. Could a line like "Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between they teeth," mean anything other than absolute and horrific ridiculousness? But other moments are the epitome of true horror, especially as Chiron and Demetrius rape Lavinia, leaving her on a stump with her tongue cut out and her hands replaced by twigs. In this moment, the absurdity isn't laughable, but heinous.

A woman of the stage, every moment of Taymor's film is rife with theatricality as she seeks to have the visual world explain just as much as the exposition. At first it's jarring, both beautiful and disjointed, from scenes of a young boy playing war, to the muddied return of troops in ancient battlewear. Taymor does an excellent job of intermingling time periods and concocting a timeless sort of Twin Peaks experience. But what's most remarkable are the moments when her stars make each scene's overt and gorgeous theatricality nothing more than a dull backdrop.

At first, it's all show --Taymor's eye rules the proceedings, but slowly, that changes. As the story claims more victims, the characters take control. Again, sometimes it's campy, especially when Anthony Hopkins' Titus grows crazier and crazier with anguish, falling to an exacerbated Hannibal Lecter-type of man. But nothing compares to the power of Harry Lennix's Aaron. (Most recently, the actor played Boyd Langton in Dollhouse.) Tamora's beloved Moor, much of the horrific deeds that riddle the story fall on his shoulders, yet Lennix makes Aaron utterly despicable while leaving a slice of believability. He seems soulless, and practically claims as much, but Lennix makes it possible that Aaron's admissions of evil are not so much his callousness, but his disdain for the Romans who conquered him.

Would a soulless creature bent on destruction care that much about a newborn son and look upon him with such caring eyes? It seems more likely that his scheming depravity is directly linked to his opinion of his victims. And when Aaron is once again captured and faces death, he acts like a monster not because he is one, but because he refuses to give the Romans the satisfaction of emotionally beating him.

Stunningly, when Lennix relays Aaron's big speech, the world falls away, and as much as you can and should loathe him, he commands your presence and attention like no one else in the film. I find it impossible to not be pulled into the power of his words, and isn't that apt? All too often the villain is so off-putting that it's hard to reconcile their power. But when the villain can breed contempt, charisma, and even a fleeting moment or two of relatability, the horror is all the sweeter and more impactful.

Taymor could have used a stricter and more controlled editorial eye on the film (which seems to be her Achilles' heel), crafting a more high-paced and frantic world more akin to Baz Luhrmann, or simply a quick-paced retelling of the story, but it's nice that she didn't. Even with a tightly edited feature, this is still not fare the average moviegoer would be attracted to, so editing for accessibility can only take a feature so far. Furthermore, Shakespeare's plays aren't a swift hour-twenty of entertainment. They slowly unfold, picking out secrets, allowing for character/audience camaraderie and a slow build of tension. That Taymor celebrates that is a nice change of pace.

Questions:
  • What did you think of Taymor's attempt to link the old and new (play and reality) with the young boy playing war, who becomes Titus' grandson? Does it fit? Does it seem superfluous?
  • Considering the theatricality: Do you appreciate Taymor's vision as is, where Broadway sensibility infuses cinema? Likewise, would it be better to mix it with a more realistic and natural eye?
  • In a similar vein, what do you think about the world of visual filmmaking? It seems ironic that the masses flock to Avatar and 3D for the visuals, yet Taymor's visuals come off as niche. Is there only one kind of visual experience mainstream audiences like? Should Hollywood be offering up other dynamic visual experiences that aren't computer generated?
Next week, I'm taking a request from a reader and tackle a film I've been meaning to see for years and years. It's an oldie, but a well-received goodie:

Next Week's Film:
Stalag 17 | Add it to your Netflix queue

Last Week's Film: Knocked Up