The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen, US)

By Robert Koehler

Why do Macbeth? As a dare, to confront the challenge of one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays? To “beat it into submission,” as Sir Laurence Olivier once put it? To face and overcome the curse of “the Scottish Tragedy?” Kurosawa Akira came up with an original answer in Throne of Blood (1957), which was to transfer the play’s medieval Scotland setting to feudal Japan and explore its theme of the fatal hubris of ambition as a means of reflecting, 12 years after the end of the Pacific War, on the folly of Japanese imperial ambitions. In their robust and suitably bloody The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971), Roman Polanski and his estimable co-screenwriter Kenneth Tynan took the play at face value, refusing to treat it like a “classic” but like the very flawed script that it is. You can take various approaches with Macbeth—you just better know why you’re doing it.

Joel Coen clearly never figured out why he wanted to make The Tragedy of Macbeth. On the face of it, the project would seem to be a natural for Coen, who is for the first time writing and directing apart from brother Ethan. Pick your Coenism—ham-fisted criminals, ill-fated plots, trails of corpses, the world as a den of vipers versus a certain if sometimes outnumbered force of justice—and it’s found in the play. Viewed from a certain perspective, Macbeth would appear to be the ur-text from which the brothers’ filmography flows. Macbethian strands run through Blood Simple (1984), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Fargo (1996), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), The Ladykillers (2004), No Country for Old Men (2007), Burn After Reading (2008), True Grit (2010), and several tales in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018). There’s no need here to delve into these movies to draw the connections: unless you’re a complete neophyte to Coen cinema when watching the new Macbeth, these tie-ins are obvious. 

The evidence onscreen, however, is that because the play is such a foundational source for the brothers’ cinema—in the same way that La Dolce Vita (1960) is for Paolo Sorrentino, for example—Coen holds Macbeth in far too much awe and esteem for his own artistic good. One smart way to attack the play is to investigate and expose its flaws for dramatic interest and subversion; another is to find fresh ways of distracting from them, as Kurosawa did. Polanski and Tynan took a different tack with the play’s initial key problem: why is a fiercely loyal soldier who is serving his king and thriving in his Dunsinane Castle with the coveted title of Thane of Glamis suddenly the object of a few witches’ curses? There’s no motive behind the play’s inciting incident; it simply is. Never mind those weird sisters, this is weird dramaturgy, a bizarre violation of sound dramatics. And that’s exactly how Tynan and Polanski treat it, as a freak event without explanation, intention or purpose—the world gone mad.

There’s a definite madness in the air of the world of Coen’s movie, and at first, it looks fantastic. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel applies such an extreme graphic style to the stark, high-contrast black-and-white images that the individual pictures appear etched, even carved. (Movies were once called “pictures,” and The Tragedy of Macbeth is most certainly a picture.) I can think of no recent movie that, when watching it, the viewer can so easily imagine the storyboards from which the final compositions derived. Here is the basis for both the early excitement—the eye is adjusting to this new thing, just as the modern English ear must adjust to Shakespeare’s spoken verse—and the ensuing boredom. The images convey madness, in the same way that George Grosz’s etchings do, but this is a look that’s extremely difficult to sustain—the eyes require relief. 

Coen and Delbonnel are goaded on by Stefan Dechant’s production design, which reduces characters to insects trapped in a gargantuan maze that makes even the massive set pieces in Dune feel small. The visual reference point is Dreyer, but why? Coen almost copies individual compositions from Ordet (1955), but his intention is at odds with that film’s radical spirituality. The lack of a God permeates no Shakespeare play as thoroughly as Macbeth, which utterly denies the possibility of spiritual renewal or escape. This carries through in this version (after all, in what Coen movie does any sort of God-loving soul have a chance?), but it misses the emotion of the play’s final gambit, which is that justice wins out. In this harsh world, such a conclusion is a form of human, if not spiritual, renewal.

The locked-in, rock-hard aesthetics of this Macbeth have the eventual effect of suffocation, not vision, and certainly not revelation of the tragedy’s theme of hubris. Contributing enormously to this suffocation is a key conceptual mistake that should have been obvious to Coen: he makes the movie as a work of theatre. The idea, in the abstract, isn’t terrible, and good for Joel for thinking outside his comfort zone; but in execution it’s generally bad, and occasionally disastrous. Bergman’s conception of The Magic Flute (1975) as a primarily theatrical experience, complete with proscenium arch, was always sound and consistent, since it naturally flowed from Mozart’s stylization and Bergman’s work as a theatre director. Coen has no such basis for Macbeth, which plays best when done (as in Polanski) in the most naturalistic setting possible. From the opening sequence, Coen’s actors often engage in direct address to the camera, deliberately puncturing the fourth wall as a crude means of giving the film some kind of theatrical pretense. Internal monologues, which abound in the play, are delivered theatrically—that is, out loud—compared to Polanski’s smart and cinematic solution of voiceover. Coen even turns the great climactic visual set piece—the opposing army’s mass camouflage, using the trees from Birnam Wood adjacent to Dunsinane Castle—into a dressage of autumn leaves, which might appear nifty on a stage but looks ridiculous on camera. It’s almost as if Coen forgot he were making a movie.

The deeper problem with Macbeth is, well, Macbeth himself—specifically, Shakespeare’s dramatization of Macbeth’s change of character from loyal thane to craven, bloodthirsty tyrant within merely a few days. Both the director and the actor who take on this text must find some way through this dramaturgical quicksand, and Coen and Denzel Washington can take at least some solace in knowledge of the fact that the character is next to impossible to make effective, let alone make sense of. That doesn’t help the viewers, though, who are watching the wrong director mishandling an actor highly capable of expressing extremely dark psychological shadings. (For this, look no further than Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play Fences [2016].) Washington looks like an actor pushing a rock uphill, stymied by the production’s pointless hyperstylization and general lack of interest in psychology (with one glaring exception). In most of contemporary cinema, such indifference has generally been liberating, but it’s incompatible with this particular Shakespeare text, and it grossly disserves this particular actor.

The exception is Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth, whose performance is all psychology, all the time. This role always makes sense, even in its complications and contradictions: the woman knows she wants power from the start, and aims to use her husband as the means to gain it by any means possible. While the part isn’t difficult, McDormand turns it into something extremely interesting, her body and face volcanic in emotion and tension. This is a Lady Macbeth with mileage on her, which has instilled in her a profound distrust of her fellow human beings (including her husband) and the savvy to know how to play the game of court intrigue. 

McDormand’s Lady is much smarter than any of the men (never a surprise in a Coen movie), such that her collapse is felt far more than any other character’s, especially Macbeth’s. The movie completely loses whatever energy it had to begin with when McDormand exits, because she was bringing the thrust and momentum of pure anger to the drama—an anger that derives from her recognition that she can’t wield power herself, and instead must depend on her unreliable partner to get the job done. That anger is the fundamental engine for her and for the play, driving all the forces around her, and her tragedy is her tardy recognition that whatever she does is never enough. McDormand has absorbed all of this into her bones, and in an otherwise remarkable failure, it’s an astonishing act to see.       

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