Together, the Coen Brothers have covered a lot of ground as collaborators and co-directors, from stark neo noir (“Blood Simple”) to bluegrass-tinged whimsy (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) to mid-century Hollywood shenanigans (“Hail, Caesar!”). But an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” could only have happened once the pair put their partnership on hiatus, according to Joel Coen in a new interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Coen’s interest in “Macbeth” was first piqued when his wife, Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand, asked him to consider directing her in the play as Lady Macbeth. He ended up not helming that production at Berkeley Rep, which starred McDormand and “Games of Thrones” alum Conleth Hill in 2016. But the seed had been planted for Coen, who began contemplating the story of a murderous couple in cinematic terms.
That plan became clearer after 2018’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the last film on which the Coens shared a directing credit. That’s when, according to Joel in the Times, Ethan said, “I think I’m going to change it out and do some other things for awhile.”
“I knew I’d be directing the next one by myself,” Joel said. “If I was working with Ethan I wouldn’t have done ‘Macbeth,’ it would not be interesting to him.”
The resulting film has earned raves from critics for making its central couple (Denzel Washington joins McDormand as Macbeth) older than is usual, as well as for the film’s heightened aesthetics from Coen, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and production designer Stefan Dechant, which pay tribute to both noir and the genre’s roots in German Expressionism.
In his B+ IndieWire review, David Ehrlich wrote, “Coen is no stranger to swing for the fences style, and the hyper-artificiality of his ‘Macbeth’ — from the sight of its fake night sky and chiaroscuro shadows to Carter Burwell’s sawing score and the thick dribbles of water and blood that fall onto the floor tiles like thunderclaps — traps its characters in a diorama of fate’s design. Everything seems possible on this empty stage, yet our ambition is always a glass half-empty; it’s a poisoned chalice that can destroy anyone thirsty enough to forget what they’re drinking, and poor Macbeth was born too soon to know why the Dude continues to abide while Ed Crane wound up in the electric chair.”