The Tragedy of Macbeth, written and directed by Joel Coen, is a sincere, confidently stylized take on Shakespeare’s frequently adapted play—a medieval film noir from one of the foremost practitioners of neo-noir. It marks the first time in 40 years that the senior Coen has worked independent of his brother Ethan, whose absence reveals that he’s been the funnier half of the celebrated duo. There is nothing comedic about Joel’s Tragedy.
If every Coen brothers film concerns the folly of ambitious, vain, stupid men, then Macbeth sits easily among their filmography. “The Scottish Play” has attracted some titans—Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski—and was recently adapted by Justin Kurzel. In Coen’s version, Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his Lady (Frances McDormand) are old, tired, and afraid. The main character is a classic antihero, physically strong yet spiritually weak, who acts upon his own murderous impulses with only a half-baked idea of what he’s going to do afterward. The snowballing fallout that ensues resembles the pulp thrillers so treasured by both brothers.
Visually, Macbeth is eye-catching but overly decorous, coming across like a self-conscious effort to find a place on the shelf next to the works of Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonel shoots in stark, high-contrast black-and-white entirely on sound stages, much like Welles’s 1948 shoe-stringer, allowing absolute control of the environment. Stefan Dechant’s spare, expressionistic sets, subtly augmented by CGI, give the scenes the appearance of unfolding in an abstract space dreamed up by Fritz Lang.
The cast is a mixture of heavy Hollywood talent and less familiar faces drawn from the British stage. Washington coasts on his natural charisma but McDormand is too warmly maternal to play a formidable harridan like Lady Macbeth. Corey Hawkins has several fine moments as Macduff, while Kathryn Hunter, in a bit of digital chicanery, plays all three weird sisters, delivering an intensely physical, virtuoso performance. Notably, in a bit of Coen-esque mischief, there is nary a Scottish actor among the principals.
Together, the Coen brothers have always demonstrated a deeply conservative worldview when it comes to notions of good and evil, edging up to the brink of nihilism but pulling back to embrace the cosmic mystery of existence. For all their clowning, they are among the sanest of contemporary filmmakers. It feels natural that Joel, in his first solo effort, would turn to the wisest of playwrights, the one who saw most deeply into life. If Macbeth comes across as self-consciously arty and occasionally juiceless it is because it lacks the initiative to transform, rather than simply render, the material. What’s conspicuously missing is the Coen genius for finding soul-shaking humor where humor feels least pertinent. What’s missing, alas, is Ethan.