Joel Coen’s ‘Macbeth’ is Stark and Stripped Bare, Familiar Yet Different

The veteran filmmakers Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, have collaborated on one-and-a-half dozen features spanning more than three decades. But a new Coen release, The Tragedy of Macbeth, streaming on Apple TV+, is an outlier for more than one reason. It is not a joint but a solo effort – written and directed by Joel – and its inventive form intends to dissolve disparate separations: between cinema and theatre, antiquated and modern, real and surreal.

The director’s narrative and formal experiments are even more remarkable, audacious even, for he turns to one of the most celebrated works in Western literature which – having been adapted in different mediums across centuries – is already so familiar, so intimate, to numerous people that it almost seems to resist anything new, William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  

It doesn’t take long to understand that this film is ‘different’ – not just from other adaptations of Macbeth but also on its own, as a piece of cinema. Shot in black and white, it depicts a literal bleak world: the overcast sky exudes a curious blend of indifference and anger, the birds emit ominous caws, and the characters walk like dazed apparitions.

The production design is minimalist: the interiors of the palace – usually a symbol of ostentatious wealth – have been stripped bare, except the few essentials: some lightbulbs, some candles, a throne (which looks like an oversized chair). Even the scenes shot outside are marked by a constant absence: of people, of monuments, of civilisation.

This world then doesn’t look ‘real’ by any credible metric. By reducing his piece to the most essential variables, the filmmaker invites interpretations and imaginations.

A still from Joel Coen’s ‘Macbeth’.

This isn’t a ‘new’ Macbeth – Joel retains all the significant markers of the Shakespearian piece (the story, the structure, the style) – but by making it so open and stark, he posits a unique possibility: of it being your Macbeth. Or maybe the Bard’s Macbeth, mimicking the outlines of its original conception. Or, who knows, maybe Macbeth himself: a mind hurtling towards insanity, a crumbling mind, an empty mind.

These deliberate and controlled theatrics produce a fascinating tiered effect. The resulting film resembles a world imagined, then a world deconstructed – or, in other words, The Tragedy of Macbeth looks like an adaptation of an adaptation. There is nothing about Macbeth that we don’t already know, and Joel doesn’t dent or disfigure our broad narrative expectations.

Yet the film isn’t devoid of surprises – whether it’s via framing (characters filmed through tilted structures) or writing (the dialogues retain numerous Shakespearian lines – a rarity in modern cinema), or acting (performers revelling in a distinct theatrical style, delivering soliloquies, at times facing the camera).

Also read: Shakespeare, the Man Who Served No One

Sometimes the dialogues and film form are in perfect sync, as if winking at the notion of a ‘faithful’ adaptation. Before Macbeth (Denzel Washington) is about to murder King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), he reels off iconic lines from the original text accompanied by appropriate filmmaking flourishes: “I see thee yet, in form as palpable as this which now I draw” (followed by him flashing a knife), “thou sure and firm-set earth, hear not my steps, which way they walk” (matched by a close-up shot of his boots), and “the bell invites me” (preceded by a similar distant sound).

It is this lack of surprise at times by a filmmaker known for stunning subversions that makes The Tragedy of Macbeth… surprising, where even (excess) familiarity doesn’t produce disinterest or fatigue.       

It’s also largely due to the lead performances – especially in a piece like this, pivoted on two disturbing characters, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), who have an infinite capacity to surprise themselves and, consequently, the audiences.

A still from Joel Coen’s ‘Macbeth’.

Here, too, Joel is faithful to the source material, but the stunning turns by both Washington and McDormand sharpen Shakespeare’s vision. The writing and filmmaking construct their descents almost in parallel – Macbeth and Lady Macbeth don’t share a lot of scenes – where their gendered response to guilt and crime tells its own timeless story.

As the movie progresses – and crimes escalate and the dead bodies pile up – Washington’s Macbeth becomes increasingly loud and cruel and relentless. His face hardens; his muscles stiffen. He gets more drunk on delusion and lashes out. The more his inner-demons inch to swallow him up, the more he wants to conquer the world – as some sort of an illogical perverse compensation.

But McDormand shrinks. She becomes pale and frail. She holds a candle and sleepwalks. She tries to remove the stains of blood. Macbeth wants to scare; Lady Macbeth is scared. Macbeth wants to imprison; Lady Macbeth is imprisoned. Macbeth wants to outsize fate; Lady Macbeth has lost faith. She is not just cruel here but also lost, disoriented, and scared – pathetic yet not pitiable. McDormand embodies these haunting qualities with delicate precision – one slight misstep, and the whole thing could have looked silly (it also helps that she played the same role in a 2016 production at Berkeley Rep).

These performances charge and elevate the movie which, especially in 2022, fulfils a challenging responsibility: that Macbeth dies but Macbeth lives. 

This review was first published on The Wire.