Spend only five minutes with Joel Coen’s dream-like, dizzying spin on Shakespeare, and you may find yourself unwilling to escape. The Tragedy of Macbeth absolutely carried that stunning effect on all of my senses through its nearly two hours of theatrical deconstruction. The distinction between film and stage piece no longer clear in Coen’s eyes, his concept for this imagining appears to unify the two. In a wild journey that sees the veteran director revisit a few outside influences, and the themes of his own early work, taking on the Bard accomplishes a finely woven full circle moment.
Even for those who could dodge covering Shakespeare in high school English, the plot of Macbeth will be quick to grasp. The titular lead (Denzel Washington), starts out as a noble Scottish soldier, but given the mild otherworldly prophecy that he may rule his country as king. The promise of power drives him and his wife, Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) mad. As one’s been unable to carry a child, and the other’s been out on the battlefield too often, they’re overdue for a new victory. With judgment clouded, he proceeds to action with a plot to assassinate the current king (Brendan Gleeson). But his disordered mind leaves him empty and unfulfilled at just one murder, thus spurring how political ambition can bring out the worst of our good nature. Macbeth was the poster child of his time, a signal of madness in a period of clemency.
Coen may not quite recognize the meaning of the word, expressing the tyrannical fighter’s anguish with an accuracy to rival other recent variations. Yes, that does include the “experimental indie action movie” flair of Kurzel and Fassbender’s 2015 Macbeth. Much of that energy does fall on Washington, who on top of a sharp sense of fury and instinct, adds his own inner conflict with gracefully aging on the fringe of one’s prime. I could appreciate when context mirrors real life; this interpretation of Macbeth embraces the concept of legacy like Shakespeare had that planned the whole time. No one really ever gets younger, even Oscar winners, or a jaded Scotsman. He knows the clock’s ticking to leave an impact. It is not the manner anyone would imagine, with fear and bloodlust on the menu, but to each their own. Washington owns the character, maintaining a steady grip until the image cuts to black.
Coen’s mind carefully roams one step ahead of his star, crafting a subtle game of cat-and-mouse treachery for wife McDormand to step into, shoulder-close with Washington. Following up from her enthralling work in Nomadland, and a significantly smaller role over the autumn in The French Dispatch, the enthusiastic second in command provides an authentic turn of both phrase and posture. In both times of fabulous highs, and lows signaling a deep mental decline. It was McDormand’s past stage work with the Shakespeare manuscripts that had stoked Coen’s fire, not the type to adapt William for the screen, but just as much the sort to follow his archetypes in some of his other films. As the first film for Joel as solo writer/director, his carte-blanche ruminates all over his story approach.
The whole black-and-white, 1.33 aspect ratio mystique is not simply a gimmick following recent trends like The Lighthouse, Roma, or Mank. Nor could it be considered an Oscar ploy, but it would be convincing to voters. It is an artistic choice running deeper than mere framing, it locks in Coen’s perceptiveness, his strength in saluting similar directorial viewpoints. Like Kurosawa and Welles before him, Coen’s inventiveness combines the established auteur’s pluck made famous through Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Blood Simple, with that of a big-city stage show template, insisting the viewer blur the separation between mediums. Through Stefan Dechant’s (The Call of the Wild) overall design blueprint, Jason Clark’s (Mulan) art palette and Nancy Haigh’s (A Quiet Place: Part II) set creation, no detail is missed. The lighting boosts a heightened shading range to compensate for the lack of color, and the presence of shadows accentuates that reflexive angling doubling down on its screen-friendly adaptability.
Besides Washington and McDormand, and compassionate supporting appearances from the likes of Gleeson, Corey Hawkins (Macduff), Kathryn Hunter (the three witches), Ralph Ineson and Stephen Root, the real star of this “show” is the camera. Bruno Delbonnel’s (The Woman in the Window) cinematography requires his instrument to move with the figurative stage, capturing every image with a tight, formative lens complimenting its foreground staging as the tension builds. He’s there with every detail, movement, or abrupt change in tone; nothing is missed, nor ignored. And in a controlled environment like a Hollywood soundstage, there can be the greatest margin for error and one would still exit with decent results. Delbonnel exceeded that, particularly with every element, character, prop equalized amid its utter savagery. Particularly, on a large enough screen where the eye is privy to every advanced item of note. How this film isn’t being supported by more IMAX screens in the long-term is beyond me.
Like Kurosawa and Welles before him, Coen now pushes his way into this mildly mixed company, making the Bard accessible for any size of screen, but his eye for ingredients needn’t be confined to the home setting. The Tragedy of Macbeth is a big film, done by conforming to small spaces, but no less grand in its Shakespearean retelling, Washington occupying the lead role with multiple layers of conviction. No matter its experimentation with size, Coen adheres to a fine middle ground, confident in his first solo effort, a maddening venture leaving shockwaves with its bloodshed. If it’s impossible to go big, at least go with the lights off. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in select theaters December 25, followed by a streaming bow on Apple TV+ January 14; rated R for violence; 105 minutes.