The title of Joel Coen’s Macbeth adaptation, The Tragedy of Macbeth, may be slightly longer than past adaptations of the Scottish play, but the movie itself, at one-hour-forty-five minutes, is actually tighter than most. It’s a few minutes shy of Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth and more than half an hour shorter than Roman Polanski’s 1971 film. If Coen’s retelling feels more fleet, it’s because he has trimmed some things down; slashing away lines and even passages of Shakespeare’s text. It’s in his version that builds a certain momentum, providing a harsher inevitability to these nightmarish events. His visuals as well are just as stripped-down as the words. Coen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel brilliantly evoke the look of an earlier time in cinema with a stark (slickly digital) black-and-white palette and the nearly square 4:3 aspect ratio. If nothing else, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a beautiful display of movie craftsmanship. It opens in milky white mists, then plunges us into a labyrinth of noir-like shadows in which every shaft of light seems perfectly placed to emphasize the minimalist arches-and-tiles geometry of Stefan Dechant’s production design. Even the allusions feel spare; Coen recalls entire cinematic histories into his frame. The intense chiaroscuro recalls any number of great directors: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, the Orson Welles who made his own Macbeth in 1948. An early scene, set in a tent where we see the shadows of gnarled branches peek through, seems to evoke Akira Kurosawa’s masterly 1957 adaptation, Throne of Blood.
Though it may recall so much, this film does mark a few firsts, most notably being that it’s Joel Coen’s first purely solo outing as a writer-director. And though he may be working without his brother, Ethan, this still feels like the latest Coen picture, as Macbeth is still a story centered on a man who acts with foolish abandon and becomes trapped in an ever-expanding disaster of his own making. The chilly Scottish hills we see here truly are no country for old men, the setting for one of our most enduring tales of intolerable cruelty. When we first see Macbeth (a superb Denzel Washington), he already looks slightly lost. The fog around him is literal and metaphorical; confusion haunts his face. Perhaps he’s still dazed from his latest military triumph alongside his best friend and battle comrade, Banquo (Bertie Carvel). Or perhaps the witches’ prophecy that he’s about to hear, the one foretelling his rise to the throne, has already begun to pull him from reality.
On the outset, when you think of Shakespeare-veteran Washington playing the role of Macbeth you might first expect a lot of the actor’s signature shouting. But until all hell breaks loose in the later acts, Washington underplays beautifully; his Macbeth is a triumph of psychological containment. Early on he’s watchful, testing his own resolve, murmuring his lines rather than speechifying them. The tortured words and phrases seem to well up from someplace deep within himself, as if they were being articulated for the first time. Still, you could mute Macbeth’s every line and see, in Washington’s physicality, a great and terrible escalation. There’s a lovely moment early on when Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) awakens to find her husband seated on the bed beside her, and a ghost of a smile plays over his face — one of his few genuine smiles. It’s an image that will be echoed a few beats later, when King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) awakens and sees Macbeth looming over him, his eyes no longer full of love but rather a cold, lethal sense of purpose.
Washington and McDormand are both in their sixties, which is older casting than your usual Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and it adds a poignant dimension to their diabolical scheming. From the start, their murderous plot against Duncan has an air of tragic desperation. Macbeth, you get the sense, has spent the better part of his life being passed over for higher leadership. This is his last stab at greatness, and any such greatness will be short-lived. There is no child to carry on his legacy; that’s always been true of Macbeth, but here it feels like more than just a present-tense misfortune. His heirlessness carries the weight of a lifelong deprivation. It’s a burden that also drags heavily on his wife, but she casts it bitterly aside as she urges her husband to embrace his destiny while he still can. McDormand played this role onstage in 2016, and what makes her such a strangely insidious Lady Macbeth is how skillfully she draws on the qualities we associate with her other, kinder film characters. This Lady Macbeth is fiercely loving and loyal, protective of her husband even in his moments of weakness, and good at advising him in that no-nonsense tone that McDormand nails better than just about any actor.
There’s no shortage of fine performances in The Tragedy of Macbeth, whose superb ensemble comprises actors from both stage and screen. Carvel makes a strong Banquo, his sad, wise eyes seeming to convey the knowledge of his own impending betrayal. The spirited, youthful vitality of Corey Hawkins and Moses Ingram as Macduff and Lady Macduff, respectively, positions them in notable counterpoint to their rivals the Macbeths. But possibly the finest acting in The Tragedy of Macbeth is conjured by the English stage actor Kathryn Hunter as all three of the witches, the old crones who first set this fateful tale of murder in motion. Hunter’s appearances are brief but darkly enthralling: With her hooded face, spooky spells and contortionist physicality, she really does look and sound as though she’d been plucked from some distant medieval hellscape. Hunter’s performance also calls forth some of Coen’s most inventive staging: Rather than simply showing the witches stirring their brew, the director has them perch in the rafters and loom, bird-like, over Macbeth, peering down as the ground beneath his feet becomes a seething, all-consuming cauldron. It’s a startling representational coup — and scarcely the only moment when the film tilts boldly toward abstraction.
While Coen can stage a murder as frighteningly as any living filmmaker, his monochrome canvas does its part to neutralize some of the horror, and the killing is dispensed with as swiftly as anything else. He doesn’t linger on the carnage; he doesn’t linger on much of anything, which is a testament to this movie’s discipline and the key to some of its limitations. There are moments when some lingering might’ve helped, to let this world and all its darkly conjured magic sink ever deeper into your bones. But instead Coen keeps accelerating, and the drama’s final reckonings feel less like the tragic operations of fate than the workings of a well tooled machine. The Tragedy of Macbeth is an immaculate vision: coldly efficient, aesthetically faultless, splendidly acted, but some extra oomph may have helped, too. Though bloodlessly straightforward at times, The Tragedy of Macbeth is an adaptation of the play that’s a virtuosic showcase of expressionistic minimalism; a film that feels brutally lean but also intimately brief.
The Tragedy of Macbeth will be released into Select Theaters on Dec. 25 and on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14