Joel Coen’s first directorial effort without his brother Ethan, The Tragedy of Macbeth, is unlike anything in their filmography. It contains the theatricality of the Shakespearean play while still being thoroughly cinematic and beautiful, making it an outstanding solo debut.
Everybody has heard about the tale of Macbeth, either from your high school curriculum or elsewhere. There have been many adaptations of the Shakespearean tragedy, yet most of them haven’t clicked with me, including Justin Kurzel’s 2015 rendition. However, Joel Coen’s adaptation grabbed my attention not only because of the star talent attached to it but also by the look and sensation it showcased in the quick trailers. After finally watching it, I can say that it brought more to the table than I anticipated. The story is the same: The power-hungry Macbeth (Denzel Washington) wants the Scottish throne no matter the cost after receiving a prophecy from three witches (Kathryn Hunter). It’s a tale of murder, depression, zeal, and seething trickery– a tale of the destructive physical and psychological corollaries of the people who seek power for their own interest.
In the manner of David Lowery’s The Green Knight, The Scottish Play encapsulates dread and trepidation as Macbeth moves from his castle in Inverness to the Dunsinane palace, all coming forth to the witches’ prophecy. There is uneasiness in the atmosphere of the Scottish lands. Said feeling gets stronger and stronger as the tale approaches its notorious end, and it shows us that evil cannot live harmoniously with humanity. No human soul can endure a significant amount of malevolence, and Coen makes sure that the overgrowing damnation is felt during the film’s runtime. That emanation is missing in the other film adaptations of the play, which is why they aren’t that effective or engaging. But, again, like The Green Knight, its design doesn’t abandon the notion of the source material and focuses on elevating a feeling that time can be your best and worst enemy as well as that every decision one makes is evil in some way, shape, or form.
A Shakespearian piece doesn’t work if it doesn’t have sturdy and physical performance attached to it. Needless to say, there is no need to worry because The Tragedy of Macbeth has tremendous performances that encapsulate the various sensations of the scripture. Denzel Washington uses trademark mannerisms to take on a new approach as the titled character, which is enthralling to see. He has some moments where he is full of fury and uses physicality to show us his craze for the throne. Meanwhile, Frances McDormand is a force to be reckoned with, as we are all accustomed to, and Kathryn Hunter’s bewitching and haunting performance as the three witches steals every scene from them.
This is a minimalist yet impressionistic approach to the tale as old as time with sound stages and void-full landscapes that feel like they were from the ancient Hollywood golden era. Bruno Delbonnel had a big task on his hands and delivered the goods with some of the most stirring cinematography of the year, beautifully shot in black and white. The wrath and guilt of the characters fit perfectly within the shots and the medieval structures. When you mix that with the excellent editing by Lucian Johnston and Reginald Jaynes, you also get some of the best transitions of the year. Every aspect clicks together in the way you least expect it to. Although there were moments where I didn’t understand the early modern English dialogue, Joel Coen directed Macbeth with ease, poise, and incredible panache.