Joel Coen’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s famed play “Macbeth” has as much in common with the surreal horror movies of its financier A24 as it does with its own source material. “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Coen’s first movie without his brother and career-long partner Ethan, balances being very faithful to the story, using unedited Shakespeare dialogue, with careful aesthetic decisions — such as the black-and-white photography and the 4:3 aspect ratio. Instead of coming off as pretentious, these choices elevate the experience to an engrossing 100-minute fever dream where the viewer can disappear into a pocket dimension of ambition and madness.
Coen’s wife and longtime collaborator Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”), whose achievements rival his in the industry, plays Lady Macbeth. Coen even had the courage to cast the eternally virile Denzel Washington (“Fences”) as the man opposite his own wife — the titular Macbeth. Almost immediately, it’s apparent that these two Hollywood legends translate the gravitas that they have amassed from their storied careers into their respective roles. Both Washington and McDormand make the most of every frame that they’re given, and they embody the intensity, greed and, later, hysteria that their characters possess. It’s impossible to look away.
As previously mentioned, many stylistic choices work together. The set design is minimal and purposely facade-like, as if to keep it as close to a play as possible. Disparate locations blend together through the editing, and rarely do sharp cuts punctuate the end of a scene. The often indecipherable dialogue, derived directly from the play, is wonderfully dense and occasionally hilarious. The fact that the exact phrases being said are difficult to understand while the emotion is still very intact makes for a delightfully hypnotic experience — the less plot points explicitly stated, the better. This story runs on primal desires and hysteria, and this adaptation maximizes the most intimate, emotionally potent elements while minimizing artificial clarity that would hinder this raw intensity.
The lighting and cinematography deserve special praise as well, as the clever editing and minimalist-style set would not be so alive without precise control over what should shine and what should be left in the shadows. Without color to guide the eyes of the audience, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) uses monochromatic contrast to electrify the fictitious, manufactured kingdom of Scotland. The deliberate use of fog adds to the dreamlike atmosphere, and environmental elements such as castles and the sky appear mythic and ethereal. Delbonnel also uses lighting to reveal or accentuate character motivations and feelings. I don’t think I saw Washington’s face evenly lit once. It was always turbulent, with light swirling around his face as if reflecting Macbeth’s ever-building anxiety.
Joel Coen is a wordsmith. By using the exact dialogue from “Macbeth,” there was a possibility that he could have lost one of the greatest contributors to the “Coen Brothers style.” Some of their best films, such as “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo,” are heavily reliant on very specific words and phrases in conversations. But the comedic timing, pacing and syntax all remain true to Joel’s filmmaking technique and stays consistent with how “Macbeth” has historically been interpreted. Losing the ability to write in such a controlled fashion did not hinder his ability at all; his voice is still clear within the confines of Shakespeare’s established story.
All these aspects together create an intoxicating collection of visuals and sound, where the minimalist attitude seeks to, and succeeds at, creating an experience that appeals to the most primitive parts of the brain, roping the audience into Macbeth’s descent into madness. Even though the dialogue is incomprehensible at times, the psychological draw is intense and consistent enough that it often seeps into the subconscious. Joel Coen, alone, succeeds at creating an exciting and mystical adaptation of the ever-present “Macbeth.”
Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.