It sounds like a setup for a joke: A Coen brother, Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand decide to do Shakespeare. There’s no punchline, only the whump of film buffs hitting the floor, fainting from pure delight. And the result is The Tragedy of Macbeth, a glory in black-and-white which bows on Apple TV+ after a Christmas Day theatrical debut. Yes, only one Coen – Joel, spouse of Frances, takes the helm solo after sibling Ethan decided to “do some other things for a while.” Despair not, friends, for this new film is still Coenesque – Macbeth is the Bard’s bleakest, after all – but also a creative departure from the norm. And lo, we are spellbound.
The Gist: “Fair is foul and foul is fair” – you know how that goes, because crows circle above, but actually we’re above the crows, and up is down and down is up. A blood trail in the sand: A messenger delivers news to Duncan, King of Scots (Brendan Gleeson), that the brave warrior Lord Macbeth has led the army to victory. Then he hits his knees because the blood trail was his and we don’t see it but do hope his wound was staunch’d.
From the mist emerges Macbeth, and at last in our eye is Denzel Washington. The loyal Banquo (Bertie Carvel) is by his side. And soon before them, a twisted woman using hands for feet and feet for hands, a crone, a witch (Kathryn Hunter). She ceases her contortion and stands and sweeps a black cape about her shoulders and perches afront a large puddle and in it a reflection of two, and therefore there are three. In her creepiest Gollumspeak she foresees the war hero becoming Thane of Cawdor and then King. “Come what, come may/Time and the hour runs through the roughest day,” Macbeth says, like, que sera, sera, baby.
Our man Denzel doesn’t seem to lend much credence to the trio crones’ word until Lady Macbeth (McDormand) gets in his ear and insists this is The Universe telling them to murder Duncan when he visits their insanely minimalist castle, so gorgeous, so cold, so uncluttered (although we never see the kitchen). He sneaks pasts the king’s guards, drugged by the Lady Mac, and regicides the living life out of him. The glory and the burden and the power and the trouble of the crown are now on his head.
His head. Which is now broken, as time has passed unkindly. Whatever will be has been and Macbeth is a tyrant who doesn’t take kindly to the slightest slight, even one by his former close compadre Banquo. Shadows pass over the faces of men and crows flap through the belfries and atrocities are cruelly dealt. Macbeth parleys with only assassins and lickspittles now, those who quiver in the presence of a mad king and do his foul biddings. And the witch(es), who perch above him, his feet in their cauldron. And Lady Macbeth, who as well is unsound of mind and sleepwalking about carrying a candle, and we wipe our brows in relief of the minimalism, for there is not a thing flammable in the castle save for the queen’s nightgown. And himself – Macbeth speaks so habitually to himself, for he is tormented and no ears will hear it.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Performance Worth Watching: Den. Zel.
Memorable Dialogue: It’s Shakespeare – ALL of it is quotable. A life without hearing a crazy-eyed Frances McDormand chatter, “Out, damned spot. Out,” or Denzel Washington jam on the Bard’s soliloquys is not a life fully lived.
Sex and Skin: None. Although Stephen Root clutches his genitals through his pants like a beast.
Our Take: “It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” This is the foundation of every Coen movie. The foundation. The core. The heart of the matter. The absurdity of life. The grim march of Anton Chigurh. Larry Gopnik standing in front of the Uncertainty Principle. Llewyn Davis strumming for none. Ed Crane eyeing a UFO. Barton Fink’s boxing-movie script. Jerry Lundegaard’s smeared faxes and Carl Showalter’s foot sticking out of the woodchipper and Marge Gunderson lamenting, “And it’s a beautiful day. I just don’t understand it.” Without Shakespeare’s The Tragedie of Macbeth, there might be nothing Coen.
So Joel Coen’s Tragedy feels foundational. An ending, maybe, a new beginning, maybe. The director said Ethan wouldn’t have been interested in co-directing Macbeth with him, and I’ll hazard an assumption that he figures he’s been doing Shakespeare – tragedies and comedies, often in their purest state – his whole life, so why bother? So the twain splits, and Joel continues, remarkably, with a starkly economical take on Shakespeare, stripped of all superfluity, down to its bones, its most powerful elements: Black, white. Iconography. Soundstages. Light, shadow. Sound – a pounding. Men, women, birds. Blood. Glory and folly. Life, and death. So much death.
And in doing, Joel Coen has come upon accessibility. Shakespeare can be dense and puzzling for many, a bewildering conglomeration of hithers and thous and Yodalike diction easily appreciated for its poetic flow, but tough for the modern ear to translate. This Macbeth is so much less so while still being true to the text, Joel enhancing spoken words with visual clarity. Macbeth and the Lady don’t fully act mad, but the world about them moves and acts with illogic to underscore their speeches to no one, to themselves, to whatever god may be present, if any.
Washington and McDormand exist in the space and fill it only when necessary, and I know that sounds like John Madden saying a football player is really playing football, but that’s intentional. They know what they’re doing and how to do it, and they do it. The set and costume design are impeccable, simple, symbolic, graphically consequential. Stagelike scene transitions – a subtle dissolve, a light dimming or illuminating – render the narrative creamy and effortless; when the director employs a hard cut, we feel it in our marrow. In the end, we witness a moment of hope amidst a tempest of blood, a progressive step for a Coen. The film is a triumph.
Our Call: The Tragedy of Macbeth is a must. Would be that one could watch it again immediate. STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.