Earlier this summer the film world received its equivalent of the Beatles breakup: Ethan Coen quietly announced that he would be taking an indefinite hiatus from filmmaking to focus on playwriting and other non-cinematic endeavors. Coen is, of course, along with his brother Joel, one half of one of the greatest filmmaking partnerships in recent memory, responsible for such classics as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men. Save for a couple of early 2000s missteps, the Coen Brothers’ output has been unimpeachable, and had shown no visible signs of slowing down (their most recent film, the 2018 western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, was as alive with ideas as anything in their filmography). The thought of a future– even if only a near one– with no new Coen Brothers movies simply feels unspeakably grim.
The good news is that Joel Coen appears to still be in it to win it: his first solo film, the Shakespeare adaptation The Tragedy of Macbeth, makes its premiere today as the opening night selection of the 59th New York Film Festival. Time will tell if Macbeth will serve as a harbinger of the director’s newly Ethanless career, but if it is, one certainly can’t accuse him of playing the hits.
It feels a little silly to include a plot synopsis of one of the signature works of the most famous writer in human history, but if we must: Denzel Washington plays Macbeth, a wizened general who is told by a mysterious trio of witches (Kathryn Hunter– more on her in a bit) that he will someday assume the Scottish crown. Egged on by his wife (Frances McDormand), he murders the king (Brendan Gleeson) and takes power. However, he soon receives a second prophecy that another general, Macduff (Corey Hawkins) will bring his end, sending the Macbeths into a spiral of paranoia and, eventually, bloodshed.
Most filmed adaptations of the Bard’s work– even the most faithful– are, to a certain degree, exercises, attempts to put a new spin on some of the most widely read and performed material in the history of the written word. This suits Coen just fine; like a cinematic Elvis Costello, much of his career has been spent trying on different well-worn genres and formulas on for size. Even so, Macbeth feels like a radical departure for the director. Though the Coens have mounted a handful of adaptations and remakes (as well as the odd collaboration with buddy Sam Raimi), this is I believe the first time we’ve seen a Coen production without the brothers’ signature snappy dialogue. The result is perhaps the first Coen picture which might not be immediately identified as such.
This is not to say that Coen’s touch can’t be detected. On the contrary, this is as bold and striking a Shakespeare film as has ever been attempted. Shooting in high-contrast digital black and white within the confines of the Academy Ratio, Coen takes a decidedly minimalist approach to the bloody material: backgrounds fade into white fog, characters hide in silhouette, and shadows jut sharply across rooms and faces like a German expressionist horror movie. In the post-film Q&A, Coen explained that the difference between directing Macbeth as a play and as a movie is that film places an emphasis on “where you’re looking, and from where you’re looking.” Coen’s camera restages the play as a series of stark snapshots, with the placement of the characters telling as much of the story as the dialogue. The result occasionally feels like a film out of time; more than most Coen films, I can imagine stills from this movie in a dusty old film-theory paperback.
But while the filmmaking approach can feel at times chilly, the performances are wonderfully alive– no surprise from a film starring two of the most formidable actors currently walking the planet. Washington plays Macbeth with a weary, lived-in resignation; even before the second prophecy, one gets the impression that he knows he’s doomed to fail, but also knows that this is his only shot to make anything of himself at all. McDormand’s Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, is less the Machiavellian schemer than the quiet voice behind the throne, insisting that her husband shoot his shot and take control. There is an appealing intimacy between the two actors, and it’s a pleasure to watch their scenes together.
The supporting cast, too, ably matches the leads. As Macduff, Corey Hawkins brings a righteous intensity, matched by a lovely (though brief) performance by Moses Ingram as Lady Macduff. Stephen Root delivers a scene-stealing performance as a fall-down-drunk porter, and Brendan Gleeson makes for an appropriately sonorous King Duncan. Alex Hassell, meanwhile, creates one of the film’s most curiously indelible characters in Thane Ross. Though written as a relatively minor character in the text, Coen runs with the longstanding theory that Ross is the third murderer (as did Roman Polanski in his 1971 adaptation). Hassell’s Ross, then, gradually becomes as much a force of nature as No Country’s Anton Chigurh, a reptilian, implacable presence constantly stalking just one step behind the main action. When the smoke clears, it is Ross who delivers the final judgment.
Then there’s Kathryn Hunter, whose performance is so singular that she gets her own paragraph. As the Wyrd Sisters (here embodied by one primary witch, with the other two taking form as shadows, reflections, or ravens), Hunter simply gives one of the most literally breathtaking performances I’ve seen in ages. Speaking in an unearthly croak and contorting her frame in directions which hardly seem human, she commands the screen every time she appears (curiously, she also portrays the old man who tells Ross of the kings murder; I will leave analysis of this choice to those better versed in Shakespearean lore than myself). Though Macbeth is not a horror story in the conventional sense of the word, Hunter’s work here will be included in folk horror discussions for years to come. In the meantime, she’s absolutely shot to the top of my own Best Supporting Actress ballot.
It’s difficult to know how best to judge The Tragedy of Macbeth: as a Shakespeare adaptation? As the first film of the post-Coen Brothers era? A showcase (or victory lap) for two legendary actors? A headtrip of the A24 horror cycle? It is, of course, all of these things and more. But it’s also simply a hell of a film– dark, moody, inscrutable, yet also as accessible a representation of the Bard’s florid language as one is likely to find. Time will tell whether this marks a new direction in Coen’s career or simply yet another genre exercise, but it is, in any event, a singular entry in a filmography full of singular entries.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
dir. Joel Coen
World premiere at the 59th New York Film Festival – click here to follow the Hassle’s coverage of the fest!