It’s a bit of a tall order, introducing a new Macbeth adaptation to an already densely populated cinematic landscape. Film adaptations of the Scottish play are nearly as old as the medium itself, dating back to a (currently lost) silent version from 1908. Since then Shakespeare’s tale of ill-fated regicide has been tackled by such masters as Orson Welles (sparse, apocalyptic) and Akira Kurosawa (arrow-strewn). As recently as 2015, Justin Kurzel directed a dour update starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.
But like Spielberg’s recent West Side Story, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (sans longtime collaborator/brother Ethan), avoids redundancy by making full, exuberant use of the medium. Coen doesn’t let a scene pass without including some visual enchantment, some audio menace: a lone figure with dual reflections in a pool, a tree branch banging against a window like the drums of fate, a phantasmic soothsayer in a handful of water.
You know the drill: it’s the Middle Ages, and Scottish general Macbeth (Denzel Washington), recently victorious over the Thane of Cawdor, receives prophecy by three witches (Kathryn Hunter in glorious Andy Serkis as Gollum mode) that he is to become king of Scotland. He accomplishes this via late-night stabbing with the help of Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), and things very quickly deteriorate from there. One simple murder becomes several, and the increasingly paranoid and unhinged tyrant finds himself shadowboxing ravens and ordering hits on children.
A botched assassination at a crossroads crystalized for me Macbeth’s compatibility to Coen’s sensibilities. The play is ripe for film noir—stories of trapped rubes digging themselves into ever deeper holes (Coen isn’t the first to make this connection, either. 1955’s Joe MacBeth is a noir adaptation set in 1930s America).
Ever since their feature debut Blood Simple (also about the regrettable decisions people make following a severe crime), the Coens have mined the vicissitudes and ironies of the American landscape, from The Big Sleep turned LA stoner farce The Big Lebowski to the dark absurdities lurking in Fargo. Shades of the “dismal tide” described in No Country for Old Men when a doomed child muses that liars are fools because they outnumber the few honest men who might hold them accountable.
The Tragedy of Macbeth’s stark, minimalist art direction recalls Welles’s 1948 stylishly grim adaptation (available on Archives.org). Increasingly shunned by the Hollywood establishment, Welles made the film inexpensively for Republic Pictures, a studio better known for B-westerns. Critics dismissed it initially, comparing it unfavorably to Laurence Olivier’s polished Hamlet released a few months prior (somewhat ironically, a Caribbean-set, all-Black stage adaptation of Macbeth from the 1930s was among Welles’s early major successes). Since its 1980 restoration, the 1948 Macbeth has gone through some reappraisal; scholars have come to admire the doom laden expressionism of its cheap, cavernous sets. Coen honors this with a claustrophobic showdown set in an impossibly narrow castle walkway.
Characters periodically look to the sky, only to find a Sun obscured by fog. That’s if they’re lucky. If not, they see ravens circling. As Omicron cases spread, The Tragedy of Macbeth’s real impact can be felt whenever I nervously check my emails/texts/news, in the futile hope for some, any, glimmer of light.
The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
Runtime: 105 minutes
MPA Rating: R
Streaming: Apple TV