“Is this a dagger which I see before me?” Denzel Washington asks as the title character of The Tragedy of Macbeth. A decorated Scottish general nearing the end of his career, Macbeth knows his role, yet desires more. Seething at being handed a minor title after a key victory and goaded on by his wife (Frances McDormand), he decides to (literally) take a stab at a higher rank.
Standing in a long, dark corridor outside the quarters of the beloved Scottish monarch Duncan, Macbeth undergoes a metamorphosis: a staunch defender of the realm becomes the man who would be king. The weapon in Macbeth’s hands is real enough; it’s just a matter of whether or not he’s going to use it. The hallway, which seems to extend into infinity, isn’t just a way of getting from point A to point B, but a portal toward a kind of moral vanishing point. Once our (anti)hero is done talking to himself, he steps right through.
No greatest-hits list of Shakespearean soliloquies would be complete without Macbeth’s dagger speech and its central, not-so-rhetorical question, with its hallucinatory evocations of guilt and regret (“my eyes are made the fools of the other senses”). Its mini-masterpiece of existential torment connects to the even-more-famous inquiry that serves as Hamlet’s enduring catchphrase: “To be, or not to be?” In both cases, the speaker is caught in a moment of panicked contemplation, shocked into awareness about the tenuous relationship between life and death, the brevity with which a candle can be snuffed out, and the ethical cost of inviting and living within that darkness.
Death becomes the Coen brothers: The morbid streak running through their work began with 1984’s Blood Simple, in which a character trying to tidy the scene of a crime he did not commit succeeds only in spreading the mess. To paraphrase Macbeth, he does not get the damned spot out, and the stain he leaves has lingered and coursed throughout the Coens’ filmography: think of all that white snow splattered crimson in Fargo. Something wicked always comes in the Coens’ movies, which juxtapose abstract ideas about death with its tactile practicalities: the ax; the gun; the woodchipper. For every mercenary murderer in their ouevre—the Leonard Smallses and Anton Chigurhs, heartless sociopaths who’ve made killing their business—there are those ambivalent figures who find themselves standing, Macbeth-like, at a crossroads between ambition and temptation. In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Billy Bob Thornton’s scheming barber substitutes a letter opener for a dagger when dispatching a rival. In A Serious Man, a superstitious shtetl dweller impulsively wields a knife against a seemingly benign intruder. “Look in your heart,” pleads the man on the wrong end of the gun barrel in Miller’s Crossing. A few scenes later, his life having been spared, he thinks nothing of offing his boss in a bid for the throne.
In light of the Coens’ enduring fondness for Machiavellian schemers and their black-hearted faith that the best-laid plans will always go awry, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s most malevolent melodrama is right on time. It’s also in keeping with their habit of tangling with the canon. One of the best jokes in any Coens movie is the title card advertising O Brother, Where Art Thou? as having been “based on The Odyssey, by Homer,” which is at once true enough but also a winking nod to larger ironies of influence and adaptation. Seriously, how many movies aren’t ultimately based on The Odyssey?
The nature of the Coens’ cinema, with its bits and pieces of character and verbiage plucked from every corner of the Western tradition, is spacious enough to permit fidelity as well as invention. If Joel’s solo script for Macbeth is considerably more faithful to its source material than any of his films besides No Country for Old Men, it’s not simply out of deference to the most famous writer in the English language. It’s because the hard, crystalline precision of Shakespeare’s verse serves perfectly as a launching pad toward Joel’s larger goal. What he’s going for is nothing less than some definitive, overarching chiaroscuro vision—the primal scene of noir, and by extension his own noir-shaded cinematic universe.
For a while, the sheer visual eloquence of The Tragedy of Macbeth overwhelms sketpicism on all fronts: about the novelty or necessity of yet another filmed Shakespeare adaptation (especially of this particular text, with its murderers’ row of adaptors, from Welles to Kurosawa to Polanski); about what the absence of Ethan Coen might mean on an artistic level. Trying to fully disentangle the threads of the Coens’ coauthorship is a mug’s game—John Turturro has correctly billed them as a “two-headed monster”—but the fact that Joel has taken sole directing credit through the first 20 years of their careers testifies to his superior facility with the camera. Direction is more than image-making, of course, but the movie looks terrific. Working with the French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), the elder Coen crafts a startling aesthetic space somewhere between silent-movie expressionism, lo-fi illusionism, and a multidirectional first-person video game. The camera roams predatorily. Spotlights flare, fog rolls, and space and time seem to warp around the actors as they hit their marks inside a stoic, square frame that’s been composed with an eye for negative space. It’s a canvas as blank as Fargo’s Midwestern snow drifts, except without those crimson splatters; here, blood drips inky black, out of the shadows.
Coen is going for a radical form of defamiliarization, and it’s a bold move. On one level, he treats the play as holy writ, retaining theatrical devices like direct address and asides while also bouncing these stagebound conventions off the all-consuming artificality of the moviemaking. For some, this discontinuity may be jarring, veering on disastrous; arty, overbearing minimalism. But when Coen’s hybrid conceit works, it works like gangbusters, such as the device of having a single actress play all three of the withered, doom-speaking Weird Sisters not as a CGI-abetted stunt but a triumph of self-divided physicality.
Kathryn Hunter, a decorated stage performer, is occasionally doubled and tripled by optical effects, but mostly plays the sisters as a single body housing multiple consciousnesses. The trio’s prophecies of Macbeth’s political ascent (and moral decline) are staged as a kind of contentious, cacophonous inner monologue; imagine the Dude, Donny, and Walter’s bowling-alley bickering acted entirely by Jeff Bridges and you’re almost there.
One of the great themes of Macbeth is susceptibility. It’s not until the witches get into his head—and have their sentiments echoed later on by Lady M—that the eponymous protagonist considers his act of regicide. The trick here is that because the Sisters have been conceived in elemental terms—as shape-shifters who take the form of hovering ravens as well as windswept rocks and ephemeral reflections—it’s as if the universe itself is speaking through them: They’re heralds of an essentially evil ecosystem. In terms of vocal and body control, Hunter is remarkable, although in a way, the virtuoso self-containment of her performance also hints at the limits of Coen’s brazenly insular approach.
On one hand, a blatantly topical or modernized reworking of Macbeth—one that emphasizes its status as a parable of insurrection, complete with a climactic storming of the capitol—sounds profoundly awful, the sort of thing that would never stand the test of time. On the other, having a great filmmaker take on Shakespeare’s classic as a literal and largely aesthetic exercise—while working on a big league streamer’s dime—has the ring of an award-season project. Not that the Coens’ movies haven’t previously been positioned for prestige, but the acclaim and awards for uncompromising visions like Barton Fink or No Country for Old Men were more like a byproduct of their makers’ mastery than any sort of target goal.
In interviews, Coen has said that the primary motivator for himself and Frances McDormand to do Macbeth was to reflect their shared veteran status as filmmakers as well as spouses. “I started to think that the age [of the characters] was giving it a dimension which was interesting to me because Fran and I were older at that point,” he told Deadline in September, noting that it’s in the absence of any children that the late-blooming Macbeths grab at the brass ring. Anxieties about parenthood inform Coen movies from Raising Arizona to Fargo to Inside Llewyn Davis, and the one line of dialogue that Coen did change is significant: Macbeth tells his wife that her “undaunted mettle should have composed nothing but males” instead of keeping the possibility of her motherhood open. “This is a post-menopausal Macbeth,” he told The Guardian. “Time, mortality, and the future are vital themes.”
In this light, McDormand’s casting reflects on her most famous role as the pregnant police chief in Fargo, a character whose strength is bound up in her maternity. A case could also be made that she already played a version of Lady Macbeth in Burn After Reading, a screwball tragedy with Shakespearean overtones—what is J.K. Simmons’s line “Jesus, what a clusterfuck” but a rewrite of Puck’s “Lord what fool these mortals be!”—and a similarly dismal worldview. In her later-career incarnation as an Oscar magnet—she needs only one more to equal Katharine Hepburn’s career haul of four Best Actress trophies—McDormand has become at once a more powerful and less persuasive actress. Too often, she shows off her skill set in movies that are built around her yet feel weirdly beneath her. In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDormand’s brittle, vigilante spirit was more complex than the manipulative narrative around her; in Nomadland, her failure to disappear within an ensemble of non-professional performers was at once the organizing principle of Chloé Zhao’s queasy neorealism and its most disqualifying flaw. In The Tragedy of Macbeth, McDormand doesn’t have to fight Martin McDonagh’s ludicrous dialogue or try to convince us that she lives off of Amazon’s scraps. She’s a powerhouse actress tearing into one of the most carnivorous roles in the English language, and she chews it up gratefully.
What’s more interesting is watching Washington—maybe the most relaxed movie star of his generation—take on a part previously played to perfection by stage-trained Brits, and collaborate with a filmmaker who has historically stylized his A-list leading men into anxious, nattering ciphers. There’s a sliver of tension between the surface perfection of casting the 66-year-old Denzel as a weary, tarnished old warrior contemplating his final act and the distance of this role and film from his usual comfort zone, and those circumstances make for some intriguing choices, almost all of which involve a certain underplaying. The dagger speech, for instance, is delivered almost under his breath.
What Washington can’t quite do is modulate his character’s transformation from a company man to a killer, which is a fault of the text; for a play about the essential hubris of the human condition, Macbeth is slightly lacking in psychological connective tissue. Hence the way that Coen’s stylistic gambits keep italicizing the evil of the world around Macbeth, a visual shorthand for inherent vice. The problem is that where in most Coen movies that fatalism is expressed as slapstick existentialism, here it’s served straight up, which has the paradoxical effect of making the poison less potent.
Like Macbeth, The Man Who Wasn’t There—still Coen’s best black-and-white movie—pivots on a character’s attempt to get away with murder. The cosmic irony is that his punishment, once revealed, doesn’t actually fit his crime—it’s justice once removed, and it’s met with bemused acceptance. Coen’s decision to keep Shakespeare’s text intact means he’s stuck giving his characters exactly what’s coming to them, which may be why he insists on a final shot that shows a flock of squawking ravens blotting out the sun. At his best, Coen’s filmmaking evokes all-consuming darkness without having to resort to such tactics. But like much of the rest of The Tragedy of Macbeth, this quasi-Hitchcockian coda is at once apt, imaginative, well-executed, and a bit too on-the-nose for its own good.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.