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Joel Coen’s ‘Macbeth’ Lays On Style at the Expense of Drama

Image: A24

Stripped down for action, shot in black-and-white in the boxy old Academy ratio, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth couldn’t be much more a hat-tip to film noir — the mode of narrative that has been so good to Coen and his brother Ethan (who sat this one out), from Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men. In this Macbeth, you don’t feel the pain of violence, as you did in Roman Polanski’s 1971 version, or Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 Throne of Blood. Nor do you really feel the weight of guilt and murder on the souls of Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand). What you do get is an art-house riff on Shakespeare’s themes; visually and aurally this is a masterful achievement. Coen is using Macbeth to carpenter a stark, stylized tribute to a film genre he loves.

So throw out whatever Shakespeare-nerd expectations you may bring to The Tragedy of Macbeth; this ride’s for film nerds. The experience isn’t even much about performance, though Washington and McDormand — to paraphrase a critic quoted in the Coens’ Barton Fink — acquit themselves admirably. The star of this Macbeth is nowhere seen on the stage. Joel Coen must be aware that the Scottish play is so baldly a forerunner of noir — with its bargain-bin Macbeths led down the path of sin and doom by conniving dames — it has actually spawned movies that recast it in gangster-flick clothes (1955’s Joe Macbeth, 1990’s Men of Respect). Yet nothing in the design of the film — the costuming, the sets — links it to those earlier chiaroscuro morality tales. It’s dark and bleak and stylish, but more closely resembles, say, Welles’ Chimes at Midnight or Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse.

The problem with Coen’s approach is that it feels like an exercise. The visuals (and the beefy soundscape, where drops of blood seem to fall with thunderous force) are meant to express this or that, but mostly they just convey a director’s nifty ideas. When Macbeth raises arms against Macduff (Corey Hawkins), they’re both in a narrow walkway hemmed in by tall concrete walls, yet they’re also outdoors, so they get to taste teasing sips of the air while effectively buried alive. That design does work emotionally — they’re both like rats in a maze, stuck there by fate, and we feel the claustrophobic guilt and shame that put them there. Elsewhere, the three witches (all played, dynamically, by Kathryn Hunter) stand reflected in a puddle — or, rather, two witches are reflected from the third — or the frame is filled with leaves or crows. Sometimes the style is a bit much, but then noir always was.

As beautifully put-together as this is, though, I can’t help shrugging a little. Joel Coen has successfully told more than a few stories about the folly of crime. It’s as though he had finally worked back to the ur-noir, the original wellspring of crime drama and “Be sure your sins will find you out,” and found himself cowed, insecure. In this respect, Coen’s Macbeth is expressive after all: it expresses a smart director’s nervousness about approaching a capital-C classic — nervousness he resolves by visually showing daddy Shakespeare (and daddies Welles, Kurosawa, Polanski) who’s the captain now. But dramatically he sort of drops the ball.

Perhaps it’s because he has no fun Coen divertissements to fall back on; even in the Coens’ adapted work there are usually scurvy or scary villains, and there really aren’t any here (the hero, in what still seems a radical turn, becomes the villain). Coen reaches gratefully towards Hunter’s witches, or Stephen Root in a funny bit; their brand of showmanship is more in line with Coen’s comfort zone. But when it comes time to make us feel the full pressure of a man who decides to cross the line you can’t uncross, or the horror of a woman who agitates for murder but whose dreams drown in incriminating gore, Coen doesn’t come up with anything. The morality of it all seems weightless. But, boy, is it something to look at.

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Rob Gonsalves

Rob Gonsalves

I write about movies, whether or not anyone cares.