A film review by Craig J. Koban January 18, 2022

Rank: #9 


2021, R, 105 mins.

Denzel Washington as Macbeth  /  Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth  /  Alex Hassell as Ross  /  Bertie Carvel as Banquo  /  Brendan Gleeson as Duncan  /  Corey Hawkins as Macduff  /  Harry Melling as Malcolm  /  Miles Anderson as Lennox  /  Matt Helm as Donalbain  /  Stephen Root as Porter  /  Sean Patrick Thomas as Monteith

Written and directed by Joel Coen, based on the play by William Shakespeare


What an absolutely audacious move for director Joel Coen to adapt one of William Shakespeare's most legendary plays to mark his solo feature film directorial debut.  

And, yes, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH does in fact mark first filmmaking venture behind the camera without his equally famous and revered sibling, which alone makes this film worthy of event film status.   

At first glance, one of the Coen Brothers deciding to branch out on his own and adapt this Scotland set historical tragedy seems peculiar, but all one has to do is look at the types of films that the Coens have been intimately attracted to these past four decades to see that it's actually a match made in heaven.  The Coen Brothers playbook has always gravitated towards tragically flawed characters imprisoned by hellish circumstances in one form or another, not to mention that their love of moody film noir has no bounds.  Tackling MACBETH and, in turn, infusing it with surrealistic crime noir inspired visual trappings makes this adaptation of The Bard's timeless material feel wholly unique and strikingly powerful.  

Oh, and what a wonderful site it is to see the always authoritative Denzel Washington making a return to Shakespeare on the silver screen for the first time since the 1990s. 

Of course, the Oscar winner plays the titular role here, and as the film opens both Macbeth and Banquo (Betie Carvel) return to the former's castle, but along the way they're confronted by three witches (all played by the same actress, Kathryn Hunter, more on that in a bit), who all darkly prophesize that Macbeth will ascend the ladder to the throne and challeng King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) for power.  Because of his relatively proud war record, Macbeth is a man of ambition, which is spurned on by his obsessively loyal wife in Lady Macbeth (Coen alumni Frances McDormand), who tries as she can to facilitate her husband's dark destiny.  When presented with a clear opportunity, Macbeth acts and brutally slays the King (sorry, no spoiler warnings for plays hundreds of years old), leaving the throne and all of its wealth his to claim for his very own.  Of course, political and personal ambition get the better of him when his sanity begins to unravel (that, and many outside of his inner circle make rightful claims as to his legitimacy to the throne as well).  Driven mad and becoming unstably paranoid, Macbeth works overtime to cover up his criminal act, but when a King Duncan loyal underline in Macduff (Corey Hawkins) starts sniffing around and smells a proverbial rat he decides to challenge Macbeth to what will unavoidably become a bloody duel to end the latter's reign and restore order and respect to the throne. 

I think that one of the inherent problems with adapting any of Shakespeare's work to the silver screen is that there have been so many over the past century that any new fangled appropriation of his plays has to really pull out all of the creative stops to make itself stand proudly apart (and while not bastardizing the material and potentially alienating viewers familiar with Shakespeare's work on the page).  With the case of MACBETH, though, movie adaptations are not a dime a dozen.  There was the atmospheric Roman Polanski version from the early 70s, not to mentioned the infamously troubled Orson Welles version from 1948.  Most recently, we were given director Justin Kurzel's extraordinarily stylish and forebodingly moody version with Michael Fassbender (which, for my money still remains one of the best versions ever).  Coen's challenge here is a daunting one, to say the least, and his iteration of MACBETH doesn't completely or radically reinvent the wheel as far as film versions of Shakespeare go, but his bravura aesthetic choices here make his iteration simmer with considerably creepy and dreamlike potency. 



Coen's true calling card here is the very look of this film.  Avoiding shooting on location in just about every respect, Coen teamed up with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Stefan Dechant to film all of THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (a) on sound stages and (b) in black and white and in the old square Academy 1.33:1 ratio.  I think the reason for these choices is simple: Coen and company are not aiming for complete verisimilitude, but rather for an impressionistic take on this well worn material.  Plus, the minimalist approach here to film on stages (and the aspect ratio of choice and lack of color stock) harkens back to Hollywood of yesteryear when filmmakers had to be innovative with limited controlled environments as opposed to shooting in the unpredictable wild.  Nothing looks real, per se, in THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, but that's what makes it so intoxicating as a pure visual odyssey.  The black and white palette here and the composition and editorial choices are like a healthy marriage between Ingmar Bergman and Fritz Lang, which have an unsettling and disorienting urgency to them.  Compared directly to Kurzel's action and battle heavy epic interpretation, Coen's MACBETH is more ethereally dreamlike and mysterious; its less is more artifice, it could be argued, allows for more hypnotic immersion. 

And it's not just the look that sells THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, but how Coen and his team find fresh ways to bring a real sense of dread to some of the most familiar moments in all of Shakespeare.  Take, for example, the fascinating choice here to have Kathryn Hunter play all of the witches.  Early on she comes off as more as a contorting, gremlin-like monster, but as the film evolves so do the witches; their otherworldly appearance and disturbing mannerisms mesh perfectly with the whole tone that Coen is aiming for here.  These witches should be pure nightmare fuel as entities that traumatize Macbeth, and the interpretation here is chillingly spot-on, in my books.  Then consider Coen's handling of the Macbeth's murder of the King, and here the staging and ultimate kill is swiftly barbaric and brutally effective.  Coen shoots so tightly on both Washington and Gleeson that it makes viewers unhealthily feel like close proximity witnesses to this very foul deed.  Even more obligatory sequences like the aforementioned climatic duel are given a new lease on life because of Coen's insistence on not framing it like every other movie duel that we're all abundantly familiar with.   

I would hardly have to emphasize that a Shakespeare adaptation that's an utter embarrassment of visual riches would be rendered as pure window dressing without capable actors leading the charge.  How much better could we all possibly get than multiple Academy Award winners like Washington and McDormand?  Washington himself has always had such a magnetic and commanding screen presence that makes him a perfect fit for Shakespeare; he's reliably stalwart as Macbeth, showing him as obviously older than other interpretations, but just as driven to unbridled madness as any that came before.  There's not a false note in his work here, and ditto for McDormand playing the always juicy role of the aggressively instigating Lady Macbeth.  She submerges herself into this master manipulator and gives this version of Lady Macbeth a few more hidden layers than we've been given before.  One of the negative side effects of this dynamic duo thespian powerhouse here is that it has the potential to overshadow the other actors, but I was surprised by how democratic THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH was when it came to the stellar supporting performances and exceptionally well oiled and assembled cast.  Perhaps my favorite of all is the inspired casting of Stephen Root as Porter the gate keeper, who inhabits his scenes so deceptively well that I almost wished that he was in it more.

Coen's interpretation is fairly well removed from Kurzel's nightmarish grandiosity, but that's not to say that the former hasn't made a profoundly captivating take on this classic tale of power corrupting minds and the horrors of having said mind unravel. Coen manages to navigate through this material in his own way that still respects the source material while obviously truncating it.  Maybe one of my criticisms of THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH is that for as dark, wicked, and meticulously executed it is, Coen still carves away at Shakespeare's work to produce a film that's under two hours, which may or may not be a bad thing. Stripped down adaptations are hardly anything new, but I can appreciate how die hard purists of the play may be a tad disappointed here with the105 minute runtime that sheds away elements to emphasize and prop up others.  If you're looking for a thoroughly faithful adaptation of MACBETH here then you're perhaps engaging on a fool's errand.  THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH is streamlined, yes, but Coen's treatment of what's left in is so technically dazzling and robustly confident that I'm willing to overlook what's been excised out.  There's much sound and fury on display in Coen's first solo film, but it all definitely signifies something far better than what we usually get with most stale and pedestrian takes on centuries old plays.  

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