"Match Point," A Modern
Macbeth, Depicts Mayhem With a Twist
Woody Allen vividly portrays
a lower circle of hell for a guilty conscience.
By James J. Murtagh, M.D.
Warning: movie spoiler alert. If
you have not seen Match Point, do not read further. The film contains a major plot
twist which is discussed in this Op- Ed.
"Corruptio optimi pessima,"
Latin proverb for "corruption of the best is the worst of all."
Could a guilty man suffer more than Macbeth? Could it be possible? I always thought
that Macbeth, tortured by his conscience, by his wife's suicide, and by cackling
witches, then slaughtered, head on MacDuff's pike, had suffered everything a
cold-blooded murderer should possibly suffer.
Wrong! Woody Allen shows in Match Point that fate reserves circles in hell for
murderers even below Macbeth's. Not being caught appears in this film infinitely
crueler than having your head stuck on a pike.
Chris Wilton (played coolly by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is the modern Macbeth.
Desperately driven by greed, ambition and lust, Wilton, backed into a corner, decides
to murder his girlfriend (pregnant with his child), to maintain his upper class
lifestyle, prestigious job, and loveless marriage.
Wilton's conscience kicks in. Racked by guilt, he confesses to himself (and to his
victim's murdered ghosts, including an innocent murdered in "collateral
damage") that it would be just and comforting if he were caught. His crimes were
sloppy; clues were left. Wilton more than half-wanted to be caught; that would be at
least evidence of a cosmic justice that Wilton despairs is absent. He stoically
waits, even yearns, to be caught and punished.
But fate denies the just punishment he deserves. The evidence disappears in repeated
twists of improbable fate, mocking Wilton even worse than the weird sister's gibes
against Macbeth. Wilton is left in frozen, existential hell, and he must endure
a long unhappy life, wallowing in ill-gotten bourgeois opulence on the Thames.
Could Macbeth have endured a hollow life if he had survived as tyrant, surrounded by
luxuries won by murder? Macbeth preferred the pike to life in bloody Inverness.
Verdi's opera Macbeth ties together these themes in the background film music.
Shakespeare, like Woody, often "played it again,
Sam", repeating over and over variations of a single story, namely, regicide,
guilt and consequences. Kings not being what they were, Woody's films substitutes the
guilt of the eternal love triangle. In each of Woody's triangles, it seems, one
person must be sacrificed. At first, Woody took his cue from Casablanca, and, like
Rick, the lead in Play it again, Sam sacrifices himself. Later, Allen's
triangles become progressively darker, as in Manhattan. Finally, in Match
Point Wilton shoots his lover. Even Wilton cannot comprehend why he kills the one
person he loves, rather than himself or his wife.
Shakespeare granted the release of death as the greatest boon to both regicidal
heroes and villains. Was there really much difference between the crimes of Hamlet
and Macbeth? Both were commanded from beyond to kill their king. Hamlet was lucky;
his father's ghost told the truth, while Macbeth unluckily listened to scheming
witches. Apparently, the justice of these men depended almost solely on the quality
of their other-wordly intelligence. But could Hamlet/Macbeth know in advance if
ghostly apparitions told the truth or not? Both men shed innocent blood as
"collateral damage," and both men's actions led to the suicides of the
women they loved. Both realized their worlds were "rotten" and death was
their reward, not punishment. Was the difference between hero and villain just a
"Match Point," as the film calls a small quirk of fate?
"To never have been born may be the greatest boon of all." Wilton,
paralyzed beyond Hamlet, not even able to ask "to be, or not to be,"
instead murders what he loves, learning the Socratic truth, "Doing injustice
happens to be the greatest of evils."
Not all villains could be punished by no punishment. The Iagos and Richard IIIs
delight in escape. Could fitting punishment depend more on the nature of the
criminal, than on the crime? For some criminals, capital punishment is devoutly to be
wished. Does the state ironically thus reward the evil man? How to know? Hamlet
worried that if he killed Claudius in the church, he might send the evil man to
heaven. Either way, something remains rotten.
Do we, in the modern world, including our leaders, suffer even more because the
possibility of punishment often seems remote?
Macbeth won redemption after being caught. For Woody Allen's modern Macbeth, there is
no punishment, which turns out to be, for at least one criminal, the worst punishment