Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is both a return to lean economical film noir that made him a world renowned filmmaker and something altogether different.
From its opening moments as the screen fills with a beautifully rendered black and white square image something strange is afoot within the soul of The Tragedy of Macbeth. As the shot continues, we see a figure appear from the mist as though a mirage conjured from a fevered dream, Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington). Macbeth is told by three witches on the battlefield that he would be crowned King. Thus begins the downfall of the Scottish Lord and General that would be King.
Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, Roman Polanski, and others have adapted this seminal work in various tones. Kurosawa’s is a samurai film. Welles’ a sparse theatre reproduction. Polanski’s a horror film set in the actual Scottish Moors. Writer/Director Joel Coen’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is uniquely his own. The filmmaker reconfigures the tale of murder into a sparse visually arresting Psychological Film Noir.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is an adaptation that takes the visions, the witches, the supernatural and places them internally into those that would use violence as a means to an end. Lord and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) begin as opportunists seeing a chance to rule beyond their station. As quickly as violence becomes their answer it infects both like a disease in which the only answer is more violence. The more violence the more the infection until both have been taken wholly by the aftereffects of one piece of violence that begets another and another.
Writer/Director Coen has always had a fascination with the actuality of violence and its cost. The cost of violence in all its forms. The mess both literal and psychological that builds around violence. Even their comedies deal with this concept, though to a very different effect. Here is the cost of violence on the mind. As Macbeth descends deeper into paranoia and eventually madness it is directly tied to the violence he perpetrates and eventually orders the men of his lands to do.
If there were ever an actor and role that felt tailored to his strengths it would be Denzel Washington and this interpretation of Macbeth. Washington’s Macbeth is a caustic and weary man. That opening moment allows Washington to sell the years of bitter cold and combat without ever having to have laid eyes on it. Macbeth is already over the edge of sanity and it’s his conversation with the witches that seals it. Too adroit of an actor to play it too overtly, Washington sneakily pokes and prods at the enviable descent during his truly marvelous soliloquies.
Not to be overshadowed, France McDormand brings her much-considered talents to a very different version of the Queen. Often, Lady Macbeth is portrayed as the cause of every malicious act of Lord Macbeth. A schemer that whispers into the ear of her husband to the downfall of her own making. McDormand goes in the opposite direction here. Lady Macbeth is not the single guilty party. The actor plays Lady Macbeth as a wife that wishes her husband would take control of opportunities. Knowing full well that he will not do what is in his, or her, best interest. McDormand’s performance adds a put-upon attitude of a woman that’s always pushing her husband but eventually has to do the work herself. The way McDormand plays the moments after they have found the King (Brendan Gleeson) dead is some of the best work of the year.
Coen and Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s use of Black and White and the 1.33 academy frame are both welcome fetishistically but also pragmatically. The frame and lack of color allow the focus to be squarely, pun intended, on the actor’s performances. The close-ups they use are striking and starling in the way they allow one into the intimacy of the performances. Though in some ways it also frees the production and costume design to go as stylized as they wish. In the case of production designer Stefan Dechant, the visual language allows his sets are steeped in the kind of German Expressionism that early era Film Noir had evolved from.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is a work of uncommon intelligence and artistry.