The Coen Brothers’ films are noted for their sardonic sense of humor, in the service of stressful scenarios that often feature copious amounts of bloodletting. The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Coen’s grim new version of William Shakespeare’s 1606 melodrama—on which the elder Coen serves as producer, adapting screenwriter and director, minus his brother Ethan—discards the “sardonic sense of humor” of the above formula in no uncertain terms. It’s a dark, forbidding piece of work in high-contrast black and white, a maelstrom of murder that may justify the centuries-old superstition that requires anyone involved in a production of it to strictly refer to “the Scottish play,” never using its actual name for fear of misfortune.
In addition to being an extraordinarily poetic film noir, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a strong contender as finest horror movie of the year. In common with any ordinary gangster, disloyal war lord Macbeth—played in a controlled fever by Denzel Washington—lusts for power. If he can contrive to kill his way to the top, not only will he become King of Scotland, his ruthless wife Lady Macbeth —Frances McDormand, spouse of the filmmaker—will take the throne as queen. In Coen’s conception, both Macbeths are senior citizens. This is their last chance to seize the reins.
The willfully accursed couple conspires together like a pair of nervous shopkeepers, compulsively plotting their own demise as if guided by an unseen hand, and all the while being surveilled by a noisy, omniscient murder of crows. Shakespeare’s metaphor-drenched dialogue, brought to a boil with Elizabethan iambic pentameter, remains a marvel of the English language.
Coen’s Macbeth makes a splendid ghost story. Washington’s haunted expression and line readings reinforce the idea that Macbeth is more a victim of intangible hubris, tangled in a web of his own design, than a forceful, dynamic ruler brought to heel by his peers. Opposite him, McDormand’s grasping, scheming Lady M grows more disheveled as Birnam Wood closes in on her castle. This version soft-pedals the femme-fatale aspect of Lady Macbeth’s character in favor of full-blown insanity—in one profile camera shot, McDormand bears a disconcerting resemblance to Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. They’re bound to each other with hoops of steel, these two doomed social climbers.
Shakespeare scholars are free to debate the worthiness of Coen’s faithfulness to the original play. But the impression remains: the physical mood of this Macbeth is almost oppressively ominous. That is reflected not only in the guilty married couple’s tortured soliloquies—Shakespeare’s scariest—but in the film’s prodigious production values.
Inside the murky, boxy, geometric sets, with the drip-drip-drip of their victims’ blood keeping time, the spinning spiders and their putative flies emerge and recede with rhythmic regularity. The acrobatic “three weird sisters,” prophesying witches portrayed by a single actor (Kathryn Hunter), merely stir a pot of treachery already simmering inside the Macbeths’ heads. Shrink from the bloody assassination of Duncan (Brendan Gleeson). Beware the reflection of an evil soul in a vessel of still water. Stare long at the restless ghost of Banquo (Bertie Carvel). Recoil from the ferocity of Macduff’s (Corey Hawkins) revenge and his sword duel with Macbeth. The line forms on the right, babe, now that Mac the Knife is cleaning house. But first he has to sort out his own personal demons, forever gnawing at him in the night.
Special kudos to Bruno Delbonnel’s expressive cinematography, Stefan Dechant’s production design, Craig Berkey’s sound design and Carter Burwell’s eerie music score. If Coen’s Macbeth feels more sinister and upsetting than its predecessors, chalk that up to the actors, the various effects, the filmmaker’s obsessive attention to detail and the resulting oppressive atmosphere of destruction. Together, Coen and his cabal create the story of an exhausted, demoralized, truly damned political coup—a Macbeth to stand with Kurosawa’s or Polanski’s or Welles’ in the gathering darkness.