The Tragedy of Macbeth is the first movie Joel Coen has directed without his brother Ethan, who chose not to be involved with this production. It would already be curious to see what a film would look like with only one-half of the filmmaking duo, and it’s curiouser when it’s Coen adapting a William Shakespeare play that was previously put on screen by directors such as Orson Welles and Roman Polanski and whose prior adaptation is less than ten years old. Still, it’s wise to never underestimate a Coen Brother, and Joel leaves his mark on Macbeth with some clever touches, powerhouse performances from his actors, and a stunning visual approach that dances on the line between stage and screen with a finely tuned surrealism.
For those that need a brief refresher on “The Scottish Play”, the story follows Macbeth (Denzel Washington), a celebrated warrior and general in service of the King, Duncan (Brendan Gleeson). While returning to camp, Macbeth and his friend and fellow general Banquo (Bertie Carvel) come across three witches (Kathryn Hunter), who prophesize that Macbeth will become king, but that Banquo will be father to a line of kings. Macbeth relays this information to his wife (Frances McDormand), who schemes that Macbeth should murder Duncan when he comes to stay at their home and then ascend to the throne. Macbeth agrees and the prophecy is fulfilled, but in his quest to maintain power, he goes on a murderous rampage that eventually has him at war with his countrymen.
Narratively, The Tragedy of Macbeth is not a radical reinvention of the text. It’s slightly abridged, but it’s still using Shakespeare’s words and plot with only a few key alterations that make for some fascinating tweaks. For example, in the original text the character of Ross (Alex Hassell) is a peripheral character, but Coen makes him far more integral to the plot, which makes for an interesting political commentary as he’s fashioned as an opportunist operator who will always be around no matter who’s in power. He’s as immune from prophecy as the witches and acts accordingly. The witches themselves are also depicted as a singular figure who is frequently combined with the imagery of ravens. These aren’t major textual changes, but it’s a way for Coen to alter the framing a bit beyond the more readily apparent visuals and production design.
The aesthetic of The Tragedy of Macbeth is its most striking aspect, and it further highlights the morality at work in the characters (morality also being a favorite theme of Coen’s works). The film, shot in gorgeous black-and-white by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, doesn’t operate in shades of grey. Everything in the film’s design, from the high contrasts of its lighting to the sharp angles of its interiors, highlights that these are characters operating in a stark moral universe where their evil deeds will rebound on them. The nuance exists in their emotions, but their actions are undeniably self-serving and pitiless, so the utilitarian architecture mimics their behavior.
From there, it’s not hard to give your movie over to incredible actors. Honestly, if The Tragedy of Macbeth were just Washington and McDormand doing this play in a black box theater, you’d already have a hit. In hindsight, it’s frustrating that the last time we saw Washington do Shakespare on film was 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing where he had a supporting role. He is completely terrifying as Macbeth and yet loses none of the character’s emotional complexity. He knows how to lean into Macbeth’s initial reluctance before going full-bore into his madness and wrath. He also has a perfect partner in McDormand, who seems like she was born to play Lady Macbeth as she cleverly eschews the overwrought scheming for more a ruthless and pragmatic take on the character. It takes an actor of McDormand’s caliber to make the famous “Out, damned spot!” monologue feel completely new yet wholly in tune with her overall approach to Lady Macbeth.
But the real scene stealer is Hunter. The witches are a rich set of roles, and Hunter is able to make them feel supernatural using nothing but her performance. There are a few VFX touches to their “magic”, but Hunter is the voice that makes them feel otherworldly from her first scene where she “transforms” from a rock into a person while still maintaining the avian aspects that Coen wants to impress upon the characters. Her voice, guttural and ragged yet beguiling, makes you hang on her every word. We need to believe that the Wyrd Sisters could, through their prophecy, enchant Macbeth to his doom, and Hunter sells that completely. It’s not the biggest role in Macbeth, but it’s the one that you can’t stop thinking about.
I suppose you could ask, “Why do we need another Macbeth?” but I’d say we’ve been doing this play for about four-hundred years and it’s worked out pretty well so far. I’m still not exactly sure what Joel Coen’s future looks like without Ethan—after all, these are Shakespeare’s words, not Joel’s—but it’s clear that even half of the filmmaking duo can run circles around most other directors with his imagination. You may have seen plenty of other productions of Macbeth, but through his gorgeous visuals and thoughtful casting, Joel Coen confidently proves why you need to make time for his.
The Tragedy of Macbeth will be in theaters on December 25th before arriving on AppleTV+ on January 14th.