The Letter Red
Review by Mark Schwab
May 21st, 2018
Updating Shakespeare's works to the 21st century probably sounds like a cool idea to plenty of filmmakers; a timeless story from our most legendary storyteller given a fresh spin...no other stuffy stage productions to compare to...and in the public domain no less so you don't have to pay for the rights! Such is THE LETTER RED, an update of The Bard's Macbeth - one of his darkest and most violent works about a murderous husband and wife delving deeper and deeper into their own individual madness.
Co-screenwriters Edward Gusts and Arielle Brachfeld also star as John and Jane Macbeth, a hip couple on the precipice of breaking into the good life (i.e. the American Dream) as John is about to get a fat promotion when the company he works for goes public. Banking on that promotion, John and Jane buy more house than they can afford so the pressure is on from the beginning. Of course, this being an adaptation of Macbeth, things spiral downhill when John's boss (director Joston Theney also wearing multiple hats on this production) yanks the promotion at the last minute so he and Jane decide to take matters into their own blood-spattered hands by climbing the ladder of success and seizing power one gory rung at a time.
If you're a Macbeth fanatic, you'll find enough references to the source material pop up from Theney's boss named Duncan, the three prophesying "witches", a nosy investigating officer named Macduff and bodies, bodies everywhere. Unfortunately, the references are the only consistent points of filmmaking here which will leave folks unfamiliar with the original text scratching their heads at the narrative and jarring tonal shifts.
In fact the word I kept jotting down as I watched the film was inconsistent. In just about every aspect, director Theney struggles to get all the pieces in place from scene to scene. One sequence might feature solid performances but get undercut with wildly inappropriate music (the music score works against the film more often than not unfortunately) while another would be lit and blocked well but the performances so over-the-top as to drain all tension from it. This causes the film to feel like a series of individual little short films instead of drawing us into a larger, visualized world. As John Macbeth, Gusts is only partially effective - he's good when playing directly off of Brachfeld (anchoring her hysterics) but his screen presence disappeared away from her. Brachfeld as Jane is likewise not used as well as she could have been - she's obviously a strong actress but directed in such a crazy way from minute one that as her madness deepens it just gets sillier instead of more disturbing. Maybe Joston Theney, Gusts and Brachfeld were just spread too thin by directing, writing and acting and the material just got away from them.
However, I must point out one very strong aspect of the film and that is Ethan McDowell's performance as the troubled and lustful friend of Jane Macbeth. McDowell is compelling and gripping, showing layers of sexuality, violence and anguish that lock on with juicy unpredictable tension. When he's on-screen, the movie works best.
There is a good production to be seen in THE LETTER RED - when the individual pieces work (a performance, the cinematography), they really work and the violence is graphic enough to grab your attention (an operation performed on a home stairwell is particularly gruesome and squirmy). Yes, hard work is evident throughout but I can't help wondering if they just bit off a little more than they could chew and couldn't put it all together into a successful whole. But damn it I have to admit they sure gave it one hell of a try.