Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth

First off, it doesn’t really feel like a Coen Brothers movie, probably because it isn’t: for the first time Joel Coen has put out a movie without his brother Ethan either in the producer or co-director seat. But I’ve seen people lump this into the “Coen Brothers” rubric, possibly more out of habit than anything else. So: Don’t do that, it’s not that, and you’re doing a disservice to the film, and the Coen Brothers oeuvre, if you do.

Second off, it is kind of a minor accomplishment that it doesn’t feel like a Coen Brothers movie, given that, aside from Joel Coen being one of the actual brothers in question, he brings with him cast and crew from his previous films, including Frances McDormand (also his wife), composer Carter Burwell, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, utility infielder Stephen Root among others. It would have been pretty easy for Coen to slide into the deep sardonicism and cosmic absurdity that nearly all his previous collaborations offered, and largely benefited from.

Instead of sardonicism and absurdity we get weirdness. Macbeth is unapologetically weird, and cinematically mannered in a way that I’m not entirely sure any other major director would attempt, or pull off, if attempted (I could see some lesser-known directors trying it, but probably not with this cast and crew, larded as each are with award winners). The things that Coen pulls off here — the black and white photography, the academy aspect, the wholesale pilfering of German Expressionism for the set design — run the risk of being winky, obscure or even twee, or of calling attention to themselves just for themselves, the self-conscious choices of a director who wants to show off. They could be a disaster, basically. But they turn out to just set the mood for and tone of the film. That’s actually impressive.

The story you know, or at least know of: Scottish thane Macbeth, fresh off a victory for and thus favor with the king Duncan, hears a prophecy that suggests he might one day be king. He then gets ambitious in a not very nice way, aided by his wife, who is just as ambitious and possibly more so. As this is a tragedy, things do not go well from there. If one wished to be facetious, one could make the argument that Macbeth (the play) is sort of a proto-crime noir, where overweening ambition gets people in over their head, and it all ends poorly, and often in shadows. And certainly crime noir-like films are Coen’s jam (see: Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country For Old Men, etc), and crime noir as an established cinematic genre owes a great deal to German Expressionism, which Coen heavily draws from here.

For all that I don’t want to attach a “noir” label too tightly. What Coen’s doing with The Tragedy of Macbeth exists in its own little pocket universe; it feels like the world falls away right out of frame, probably because, as the film was shot almost entirely on soundstages, it does. Noir doesn’t quite fit here; or maybe it’s best to say this film is noir’s odd cousin, the one with a lit degree and scenes from Un Chien Andalou running on a GIF loop on their iPhone.

I think this film is very good, but I don’t know if I like it. Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand and the rest of the cast are terrific, and also are all a few degrees off of where their performances might be said to be enjoyable (special nod to Kathryn Hunter as the weird sisters, providing the definitive what the actual fuck performance of 2021). The cinematography is, as already noted, laden with cues from another, grainier era of film, and shot with a digital clarity that is so sharp as to make the film (which is not on film) airless. Nothing is plumb; it’s all unsettled and unsettling.

It’s all effective, and I know I want to see this movie again. I don’t know that I will like it any better the next time I see it. I’m pretty sure that’s what Joel Coen was going for all along.

— JS

16 Comments on “Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth”

  1. I’m looking forward to seeing this when I get the chance. I recently read a biography of Orson Welles and they mentioned his very odd adaptation of Macbeth shortly after the war, with odd set design and costumes (crowns and helmets that looked like they were made from cardboard boxes) and everyone speaking in an affected Scottish burr.

  2. Sweetman and I saw this one Wednesday night. Macbeth is probably my favorite work by Shakespeare and I never miss a chance to see it performed. I’m not sure what I thought of Denzel’s Macbeth . . .better in the second half than the first, for sure. But I LOVED Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth, and loved seeing these characters played by someone nearer their likely ages/stages of life. TOTALLY with you on the weird sisters. Weird is right, but also, maybe exactly right.

  3. I haven’t seen it yet, but wonder how it compares to Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood? Also very mannered and artificial, but a very loose interpretation.

  4. From the trailers, I’ve been thrown off by the production design. It just doesn’t work for me, but then, I like a very historical looking setting. So far my favorite version was Polanski’s. I’ve got Maurice Evans’ and Ian McKellan’s bookmarked on youtube to check out when I have time. I’m curious to see Washington’s performance as Macbeth. He did a good job in Brannah’s Much Ado About Nothing.

  5. Not often will a play or movie sear the soul and this movie has done what most cannot do. I really will have to think about this movie for a long while, will also watch it again because it is so full. The whole cast is stellar and the director knew what he wanted to do. It plays well and that casts of plays are forbidden to mention Macbeth before a live audience tells me the story is still powerful and evocative.

  6. Coincidentally I’ve been thinking about the Coens the last couple of days because we’re watching “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” We’re watching it in pieces, that being all that Mr DAW can take. And I was thinking how much I admire that Coen willingness to make a movie that won’t be a blockbuster.

  7. sounds like a movie that is not simply a mindless blockbuster like so many movies… it would be wonderful if there were more movies that left the audience shaking or enraged or shivering in reaction to the actions by characters, not just FX blood pooling… ‘the Scottish Play’ has always rubbed folks the wrong way for the right reasons…

    too bad I am more in need of mindlessness and less inclined to watch political intrigue… because if I wanted to let myself get nasty, there are comparisons to be made between #J6 & “Macbeth”…

    both are deeply flawed criminal conspiracies wherein overweening ambition by incompetent men result in blood soaked elbows & repeated betrayals & petty infighting & escalating body counts

    …and it all ends poorly

  8. @Samantha –
    “Played by someone nearer their likely ages/stages of life” is wildly inaccurate. Macbeth should be in his mid-30s and Lady Macbeth in her early 20s at the beginning of the play. They were vigorous young rebels, not senior citizens. And even if there were no time-compression at all in the play (unclear), Macbeth would only be in his early 50s at the end.

    I’m sure Washington and McDormand are great, and I look forward to seeing the film, but I’ve seen sooooo many productions with talented but over-age actors already. Age-appropriate would be much more exciting to me. Imagine a young Lady M – a teenage mom – giving that speech about dashing a baby’s brains out. It would be a whole new level of horrifying.

    (I also wonder: did they cut the line about Duncan looking like Lady M’s father? It seems like that would be weird, with Gleason being only a couple of years older than McDormand.)

    The most interesting version of the Scottish play that I’ve seen in years was Erica Schmidt’s Mac Beth, (see here) with a cast of fierce young women playing teenage girls performing the play.

  9. Gor blimey, John, you should never have ceased writing film reviews. That is a magnificent piece of film criticism, fit to accompany the work it discusses.

  10. Author friend, who is so very white, married a American Born Chinese, the kids call themselves havevess.
    She has written children books with Asians characters. Another author accused her of cultural appropriation.

    I roll my eyes in disbelief.

    I wonder if there person is upset that Macbeth, is not played by a blued blooded Dutch man?

  11. My fav version is the first one I saw with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench and I fell in love with it. But I am interested in seeing this one

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