The Scottish Play has been adapted into more than 25 different movies since J. Stuart Blackton first gave it a whirl in 1908, and yet Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is such a strange hybrid between cinema and theater that it seems to exist in a realm all its own. Shot in atemporal black-and-white on a Los Angeles soundstage made to resemble the half-empty guts of a leaky snow-globe, this dark lucid dream of a film might be the latest example of a grand tradition, but its hermetically sealed design makes it sound more like an echo chamber. There are mad whispers bleeding through the concrete walls — dark thoughts that curve around the fake night sky — but the voices seem to be coming from inside the castle.
Which isn’t to suggest that the quizzical calm of Denzel Washington’s lead performance doesn’t make for an arresting contrast against the foam-mouthed ferality that Toshirō Mifune brought to the role in “Throne of Blood,” or that Bruno Delbonnel’s grayscale cinematography doesn’t feel like a deliberate 180 from the saturated grit of Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth” and the fetid barbarism of the Playboy-funded Roman Polanski movie that substitute teachers once showed in public high schools (it was a different time).
Nor is to say that Coen’s film is some kind of sui generis work that has emerged from his head untouched by a century of other cinematic influences. On the contrary, this ultra-heightened adaptation couldn’t be more boastful about its lineage if it were the rightful heir to the Scottish crown: Its warped architecture screams Caligari, its godless close-ups echo the cries and whispers of Ingmar Bergman, and its shadowy take on the ambitions shared between Macbeth and his Lady (Frances McDormand) points back to the glory days of film noir with the same eagerness as Coen’s own “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”
And so our attention falls upon the man who wasn’t. Here, in the first movie he’s ever made without his brother Ethan — ironically taking a break from his film career in order to focus on the theater — it often feels as if Joel Coen is talking only to himself. For all of the film’s striking minimalism and the sour bouquet of sensational performances that fill its empty spaces with life, the most powerful thing this adaptation does to revitalize its 400-year-old text is position Shakespeare as a prime influence on the Coen brothers, and “Macbeth” in particular as a lyrical prototype for the fatalism they’ve brought into the modern world. After all, what Coen movie couldn’t be summed up by the Thane’s lament that “Life… is a tale told, Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing?”
In that light, it’s easy to appreciate how “The Tragedy of Macbeth” feels every bit as of its time as the likes of “Inside Llewyn Davis” or “A Serious Man” — which is to say very, but also not at all. It’s a fittingly self-conflicted vibe for something that combines the sparseness of a late career work with the back-to-basics energy of a veteran filmmaker starting a new chapter of their career, and returning to the primordial ooze that inspired it in the first place. Set in a world undressed, and slightly paring down Shakespeare’s plot while maintaining a broad fidelity to his language, this is a movie by and about people in their mid-60s who find their lives stripped down to their barest elements, and do what they can to grab hold of what’s left.
Unlike his doomed hero, however, Coen knows this story well enough to keep his ambitions in check.
The clock is ticking down to death from the moment “The Tragedy of Macbeth” begins. The first thing we see on the screen is a block of text that simply reads: “WHEN.” Given the fogbound purgatory in which Coen’s film takes place — every scene of it shot on the same Los Angeles soundstage — that word doesn’t read like a place-marker so much as it does the tail end of a question (“If not now…”). Characters emerge from the mist like ghosts, each of them insisting they’re not dead yet. The first person we meet is a wounded captain played by “The Green Knight” star Ralph Ineson, the patron saint of medieval dream cinema, who reports to King Duncan of Scotland (Brendan Gleeson) that their army has just defeated some distant foes. The hero of the battle? None other than the brave general Macbeth, whose long walk home will be troubled by a prophecy that he’ll die to fulfill.
It should be hard to pick a standout performer in a movie whose cast boasts such an embarrassment of riches, but the MVP reveals herself early and with unforgettable force. Known abroad for her shapeshifting physicality, British actor and theatre director Kathryn Hunter is astounding as the witches — all three of them, in addition to a fourth part later on — who incept Macbeth with the idea that will eventually undo him. A trio of black ravens who collapse into a single human body that walks on bent wings and reveals itself only in the reflection of dirty puddle water, Hunter’s witches capture the same dark magic that Hayao Miyazaki drew into the similarly bird-like Yubaba in “Spirited Away,” and fix the entire movie that follows to the sticking place between life and death.
By the time Macbeth enters the picture, Washington’s breezy laugh heard before the rest of his character is seen, the tension between this solid man and the slippery morass around is already sharp as a dagger.
Pep in his step, gray in his beard, and so comfortable in his iambic pentameter that it feels like he originated the part, Washington’s Macbeth cuts an indivisibly human figure against the backdrop of a most unnatural world. This Thane is every bit as doomed as he’s been for the last 400 years, but he stands out as a singularly grounded figure. He’s older than the average Macbeth — he’s survived for so long because he’s got a good head on his shoulders, even if the scar under his neck suggests that people have tried to take it from him. He’s lucid as the day is long, and aware of his place even in an expressionistic zone where most of the castles are represented by simple shapes (inspired by the modernist stage work of theatre visionary Edward Gordon Craig). Washington rubs a weary hand over his scalp as if he’s trying to wipe the witches’ omen away like a layer of sweat; he doesn’t want to believe it, which only makes it all the more devastating when he does.
McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is similarly practical and within her skin. A far cry from some hysterical succubus who tempts Macbeth towards his doom, McDormand plays the role with the weathered intimacy of a wife who truly wants what’s best for her husband, and thereby for herself. She thinks they’ve earned a reward for a lifetime of loyal service to the crown, and cooly springs into action upon learning of the prophecy and King Duncan’s decision to name his son Malcolm (Harry Melling) as his heir. It’s the restrained work of someone confident in the power of their screen image, less memorable for Lady Macbeth’s eventual meltdown than for the two-faced fun McDormand has when leaning into the “We’re all trying to find the guy who did this” energy of the scenes following Duncan’s murder.
And yet, in a screw-turning film that cuts every corner it can while introducing so many other characters who vie for our attention, the marriage between the Macbeths often feels more implied than witnessed, and the chemistry these acting titans spark against each other almost becomes a gift that Coen takes for granted. The consequences of that are most acutely felt during the climactic downfall, when the Lord and his Lady are isolated into their own pockets of madness; before then, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is shared by a litany of supporting players who are just as much fun to watch.
Coen smartly plucks his cast from a rich mix of famous screen actors (e.g. Sean Patrick Thomas, Stephen Root) and world-class veterans of the Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s hard to fathom a better Ross than Alex Hassell, whose giant eyes convey a rare understanding of what’s actually at stake in this story, and whose sinewy body provides the perfect frame for the reaper-like robe that Mary Zophres has sewn onto it (her star-laden cape for King Duncan is a similar wonder, especially for how ill-fitting it is on Macbeth). Elsewhere, and for the second time this year, “In the Heights” actor Corey Hawkins runs away with a movie that keeps him largely on the margins. His Macduff is an open wound of a man capable of technicolor grief, and Hawkins’ sorrow brings sudden weight to the final duel (Moses Ingram shines in a stinging cameo as his wife).
Prior to Macduff’s arrival at Inverness, it seems like Macbeth might have to be art-directed to death instead; Washington is a beautiful ruin surrounded by the minimalist slabs that form his castle, but the shots of him splayed across the throne look more like ads for a new Broadway production by Ivo van Hove than they do the emotional climax of a film in progress. The inert theatricality of those images is, however, a rare example of too much in a movie that creates most of its world from nothing at all.
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.
So many of Coen’s yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death — here, the fool that predated them all travels that morbid trail with the blood simple purity of someone blazing it themselves, oblivious to the fact that he’s retracing his steps back from whence he came.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” premiered at the 2021 New York Film Festival. A24 and Apple Films will release it in theaters on Christmas Day. It will be available to stream on Apple TV+ beginning January 14, 2022.