Enter the Nightmarish World of Joel Coen’s Macbeth

Denzel Washington leads a magnificent ensemble in this stark, minimalist adaptation of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Denzel Washington in Joel Coen's adaptation of 'Macbeth'
Alison Rosa / Apple TV

Why would Joel Coen want to film an adaptation of Macbeth? The director’s body of work, which until now had always involved collaboration with his brother, Ethan, is mostly confined to stories set in America in the 19th or 20th century—crime thrillers, black comedies, Westerns, careful studies of characters balanced on some kind of mental precipice. Indeed, even Joel Coen has admitted that he could make The Tragedy of Macbeth only because his brother had decided to take a break from movies. “If I was working with Ethan I wouldn’t have done Macbeth, it would not be interesting to him,” he said in one interview.

But squint just a little, and Shakespeare’s tragic Scottish king reveals himself as a perfect Coen protagonist—a relative small-timer with outsize ambitions whose attempt to vault the ladder of success lands him in trouble. Macbeth (played here by Denzel Washington) is not too far removed from Jerry Lundegaard of Fargo or Ed Crane of The Man Who Wasn’t There or nearly everyone in Burn After Reading. He gets sucked up in machinations that put him over his head and spends much of the plot trying to untangle a web of his own weaving. The Coens’ scripts are usually powered by a constant hum of tension, the sense that everything is about to come crashing down on our hero’s head, a not-unfamiliar device in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

With those parallels acknowledged, Macbeth is still quite a daring departure for Coen as his first solo work. Shot in stark black-and-white by the cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and staged on abstract, minimalist sets designed by Stefan Dechant, the film feels like a foggy memory of a story told a hundred times. It’s set in Scotland, but here the country is a blank dreamscape, and the protagonist is a weary warrior caught up in a doomed, nightmarish scheme. Coen films are always immaculately composed, with a real sense of place, be it the freezing Minnesota countryside, the blasted plains of West Texas, or the anarchic backlots of 1950s Hollywood. With The Tragedy of Macbeth, Coen is stripping away that scenery, zeroing in on the essential details of Shakespeare’s tale of how a hunger for power can curdle into madness and death.

Washington, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and an appropriately drowsy gaze, is an elder Macbeth, playing him as a warrior in his twilight years, better days supposedly behind him. The character is of a piece with other performances he’s given lately in movies such as Fences; Roman J. Israel, Esq.; and The Little Things; these roles acknowledge both the star’s age (he just turned 67) and the lingering twinkle of his youthful charisma. After a military victory, Macbeth is found on the battlefield by three witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter) who pronounce that he shall one day be king. This notion becomes a splinter in the mind of his wife, Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), who encourages her husband to murder the current king and seize the throne.

Coen assumes audiences are acquainted with Shakespeare’s original story, and so his adaptation cuts the play down to a lean 105 minutes of Macbeth plotting, killing, and unraveling as he faces his ultimate downfall, trying to cling to the prophecies that propelled him to power. The sparseness of the script matches the modesty of the staging. Because the film lacks lush period detail, or really any specific background visuals at all, the audience’s attention is thrown onto the performances, and the cast rises to the occasion magnificently.

Hunter is a particular standout. Mostly a stage actor who’s best known for her incredible physicality, Hunter communicates the witches’ otherworldliness by gnarling her limbs in strange directions and delivering her lines in a frightening rasp. The act is wondrous to behold, and Coen’s camera drinks in every choice. Washington and McDormand play the couple as knowing partners, swept up into murder less by a passionate rage than by a desperate desire to make themselves relevant. Some of the finest work comes from the least-known members of the ensemble. Moses Ingram makes her scene as the furious Lady Macduff into a grand mini-tragedy of its own, while Alex Hassell interprets the two-faced nobleman Ross as a fascinatingly opaque messenger, shuttling from betrayal to betrayal while never really belying his feelings.

Coen has long been a director who draws outstanding work out of the smallest day-players, but The Tragedy of Macbeth is the purest distillation of his approach, nudging the viewer to notice subtle shifts of emotion in each actor’s eyes. The thrill of so many Coen films is the baroqueness: the splendid period setting, the intricate cast of characters, the way a seemingly simple narrative spirals into a maze of double crosses and mistakes. With the visuals of The Tragedy of Macbeth, Coen takes an empty canvas and applies just a few oblique blots of ink; the detail is still there—it just requires a different sort of concentration.