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.