Like Orson Welles did nearly 75 years earlier, director Joel Coen (working without brother Ethan) has taken Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, stripped it down to essentials—minimalist set design, shot it in black and white (bravo to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel) and in 4:3 aspect ratio—and given audiences a near-perfect presentation that comes across as more of a horror film than a drama. From the truly inventive introduction of the three witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter) to casting the next King of Scotland (Denzel Washington) and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) with older actors, so as to add childlessness to their list of life’s regrets, the film is bold, full of fire, and manages to get deeply psychological in its exploration of ambition gone awry, paranoia, death as a solution, fate, and eventually madness.
In an attempt to hide the use of sets for outdoor sequences, Coen employs smoke machines and shadows, and the impact is terrifying at times. But nothing matches the smoky darkness of the hearts of these characters. Macbeth returns from another successful war campaign only to stumble upon the aforementioned witches, who provide the warrior with forecasts about his life, including that he will be king and cannot be killed by any man of woman born. It seems like a positive prediction for becoming royalty and living forever, but even Macbeth knows it sounds too good to be true. That doesn’t prevent him from living a dark life that pushes him toward these benchmarks. He kills the current king, Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), and a few others who might claim the throne.
All the while, he confides in his wife, who seems more intent on ending what she perceives as slights against her husband than any actual power grab. There’s a sweeping sense of bitterness that permeates every corner of Macbeth that is so palpable you can almost smell it. And it’s that sense of anger and dread that has made the Scottish Play one of my favorites by Shakespeare (my favorite film adaptation, for those asking, is Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood). For the first few minutes of the movie, I thought maybe Washington may have been miscast because he seems too at ease with his lot in life. But as the story rolls on, we see the layers of anxiety and angst pile on until he’s a barely comprehensible being who sees everyone as his enemy. Meanwhile, his wife is consumed by guilt, unable to wash the blood from her hands. McDormand has absorbed Lady Macbeth into her pores, shifting from put-upon soldier’s wife to queen to suicidal plotter of other people’s murders. She comes to life as she slips into insanity, and it’s one of the most exciting roles of McDormand’s colorful and varied career.
As mentioned, Coen portrays the bloodletting in Macbeth like that of a gothic and graphic horror movie, with pitch-black blood taking the place of dialogue declaring someone’s death. One of the best in the cast is Corey Hawkins (recently of In the Heights) as Macduff, whose family’s murder is especially difficult to stomach. But it makes the movie all the more powerful and his storyline, about seeking revenge on Macbeth, all the more tragic.
This is that rare film where the atmosphere always seems to match the tone of those in the scene. Dark, hazy, threatening—these are all descriptions of both the characters and their surroundings at any given minute. And it’s that level of detail and aesthetic choices that make The Tragedy of Macbeth one of Coen’s most harrowing works (and he certainly has many titles to choose from). By paring down the text, the film makes the occasionally dense descriptive voice of the play more accessible, and it’s rare that you’ll be lost in the language since the surrounding look and actors’ performances make it more than clear. No one in this film is playing around; this is a dark affair, and when the world starts closing in on Macbeth in the final moments, it almost feels like mercy when he is shuffled off this mortal coil. This is a unique take on the material, but also a classic production that ought not to be missed.
The film is now playing in select theaters and will begin streaming on Apple TV+ January 14.
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