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Coen’s ‘Macbeth’ is a fresh take on one of Shakespeare’s most tragic tales
Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” opens with contrasting shots of the sky and the earth, with a disorienting blend of both in the very first shot. We seem to be looking up at three corvids circling ominously amid impenetrable haze — but then the clouds part and a tiny figure appears, revealing that the camera is looking down from above. This is normally called a “God shot,” but the birds look down with anything but divine eyes: They represent the play’s three witches in keeping with the opening lines heard in voiceover: “Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
In the sand below is a trail of footprints streaked with splatters of what turns out to be blood. These two images roughly establish the parameters of Macbeth’s story.
Though the disc of the sun does sometimes pierce the overcast skies, the stars are seen and remarked upon, and the powers of both heaven and hell are referenced throughout, what we see of Macbeth’s life plays out in a cramped, shallow space of earthly ambition and bloody deeds overshadowed by dark oracles beckoning Denzel Washington’s Macbeth to his doom.
“Macbeth” may be one of Shakespeare’s most theologically explicit plays, but it’s a tale of sin and corruption in which God seems so emphatically remote that even when Macbeth tries to pray, he can’t — which is another way of saying it’s ideally suited to the Coen sensibility.
Working for the first time without his brother, Ethan, with material proposed to him by his wife and frequent collaborator, Frances McDormand — who played Lady Macbeth on stage five years ago at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California, and reprises the role here — the elder Coen brother approaches this oft-filmed material in a thrilling spirit of discovery rather than subversive reworking or reimagining.
To a greater degree even than their 2010 adaptation of Charles Portis’ “True Grit,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is dominated by the language and structure of the source material, though filtered through a Coenesque visual and aural sensibility leaning into the bizarre, the surreal, the grotesque.
Somehow, though she appears in the role in only two scenes, the astonishing Kathryn Hunter, with her croaking voice and shape-changing contortionist physicality, incarnates the Coen aesthetic as all three of the Weird Sisters, so much so that I cannot imagine her in anyone else’s “Macbeth,” nor imagine Joel Coen’s “Macbeth” without her. (The former is clearly my own lack of imagination; she has played Puck and even King Lear onstage, and could doubtless be anybody’s Weird Sisters. Even so, if she played the opening the way she does here, I would still want a Coen movie to follow.)
Hunter recites only Shakespeare’s lines, though not quite in the order that Shakespeare wrote them, and the way she disposes her body is also not quite in the order that anyone’s body ought to be disposed in anything but a Coen “Macbeth.”
She first appears curled up like a rock on the sand, and from the disjointed unfolding of her gaunt limbs, the whole look of the film seems to flow — from the illogical vision of the single witch doubly reflected in the pool at her feet, to the silhouetted images of revelers at Macbeth’s castle behind paneled screens, the vision of the “moving grove” marching on Macbeth’s castle and the brilliantly conceived and choreographed penultimate fight scene between Macbeth and young Siward, doomed by his common birth of woman.
The feel of this “Macbeth” flows also from the age of the two leads and the world-weariness they bring to these aged characters and their comfortably lived-in marriage. Younger Macbeths may hope against augury for a dynasty, but for Washington and McDormand’s Lord and Lady Macbeth, there is only the possibility of the throne and the glory, and the prophecy of the Weird Sisters that Macbeth’s companion, Banquo (Bertie Carvel), will beget a line of kings concerns Macbeth only insofar as it might threaten his own life.
Shot almost entirely on Los Angeles soundstages and filmed by Bruno Delbonnel in bleak black and white leaning into mid-toned grays, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” flaunts its artificiality in every aspect of its design. The spare, flat look of the columns and arches of Macbeth’s castle feel more like storyboarding come to life than a real edifice, in keeping with the production design’s German Expressionist inspirations. Shortly after Brendan Gleeson’s tragically noble-minded Duncan says that “signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine on all deservers,” Macbeth strides under an unconvincingly close sky of glittering stars, darkly urging them to “hide your fires” (which, in a sign of evil overtaking goodness, we are later told by Banquo they do).
Fog and mist, translucent pavilion sidewalls, blowing curtains, dark water, shadows, reflections — the film is full of motifs evoking the murkiness in which Macbeth’s last days play out. Fate, divulged to Macbeth in oracular utterances that are first straightforward, then perversely self-fulfilling, and finally insidiously equivocal, is as much veiled as revealed. And while Macbeth is clear-eyed about the utter lack of justification, or even mitigating circumstances, for his murderous treachery, his embrace of evil progressively impairs his vision and darkens the world, beginning with the chimerical dagger he seems to see on the night of the murder.
Clarity comes, above all, in the sound design. That knocking sound that unnerves Macbeth after the murder of Duncan, though it is only Macduff at the castle gate, becomes here an apocalyptic hammering: the protest of conscience, the wrath of heaven, the summons to hell. The pounding falls in time with the drops of Duncan’s blood splattering on the floor, as if the slain king’s blood, like that of Abel, cries out to heaven for vengeance. Macduff comes and goes, but the remorseless hammering resonates throughout the film.
Washington, no stranger to Shakespeare, unfolds the Bard’s language with easy grace and shrewd choices. He delivers some of the play’s most famous phrases almost offhandedly; the nihilism of “a tale … told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing” is conveyed not by dramatic declamation but by apathy, or rather numbness. On the other hand, when goading a pair of men to murder Banquo, Macbeth scoffs, “Are you so … gospel’d to pray for this good man and for his issue?”, the pause before the unusual word adds damning religious weight as well as clarity. In another theologically fraught line, as he rants to his wife about the loss of his soul — “mine eternal jewel given to the common enemy of man” — Macbeth gesticulates with both arms toward the floor, and what lies far beneath.
McDormand plays Lady Macbeth not as a domineering or seductive figure but precisely as her husband’s partner and advocate, telling him only what she believes he should tell himself. She is frightened and alarmed more for his sake than hers by his apparent bouts of madness, and frustrated when reality begins to slip away from her as well. In another drama, they would be a couple one would root for; in spite of everything, I want to root for them here, though not for a moment for their plot.
As Macduff, Corey Hawkins laces ferocity with moving tenderness and grief, while Carvel’s Banquo, like Gleeson’s Duncan, is a touchingly earnest, tragic figure. Alex Hassell, in an intriguingly pivotal role as a thane named Ross, evinces calculating reserve, his hands clasped in a posture that enhances the vaguely clerical impression of his attire.
One of Shakespeare’s most Coen-friendly lines goes to young Ethan Hutchison in a brief scene as Macduff’s son. Told by his mother (Moses Ingram) that all liars and false swearers must be hanged by honest men, he observes, “Then the liars and swearers are fools, for there are liars and swearers enow to beat the honest men and hang up them.” The universe is not on Macbeth’s side, but he is no fool, and that’s enough to make this story a tragedy for more than just Macbeth.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth,” rated R, opens in select theaters Dec. 25 and will be available to stream on Apple TV+ starting Jan. 14.
Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the creator of DecentFilms.com, a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.