Sinister, stark and shadowy, the new “Macbeth” conjured up by Oscar-winning writer and director Joel Coen, and starring his Oscar-winning wife Frances McDormand with Oscar-winner Denzel Washington in the title role, has the cast and production values to compete with any prestige picture this awards season.
But “The Tragedy of Macbeth” puts almost every other blockbuster and “awards bait” film of this fall and winter to utter shame in one jarring regard. A swift and streamlined tragedy by the greatest playwright in the English language becomes a lean, quick and brutally brisk film in Coen’s hands.
And if Shakespeare and Coen can deliver “The Scottish Play” in a riveting 100 minutes, what excuse do the creators of “House of Gucci,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Matrix Resurrections,” “Spider-Man” or even “The King’s Man” have for not getting to the point in 135-150 or more?
Casting great actors pays dividends as Washington gives Macbeth a guile and agency sometimes lost in productions that play up the femme fatale, Lady Macbeth. McDormand’s take on Mrs. “Out damn-ed spot!” is a revelation, a cunning woman reeling at the way her husband takes over “their” plot, fuming and cracking under the strain of his blunders and improvisations to her plan to kill their way to the Scottish throne.
Washington’s ultra-naturalistic and confident line-readings remind us that this poetry has its greatest impact when it sounds like improvised dialogue, and McDormand’s “madness” adds new colors the theater’s greatest conniver-who-cracks-up.
Many a character player (Brendan Gleeson is King Duncan, Stephen Root is the verbose and comical Porter, Moses Ingram the fierce and tragic Lady Macduff) sparkles in a single scene or three, although there are a couple who seem o’er-matched, if not miscast.
The story — that of a brave, brutish and honored Scottish thane who lets a battlefield promotion go to his head, pushed into plotting against those who stand between him and ultimate power by his wife — is simple enough and rendered in greys and whites and bloody strokes by Coen. The dialogue, which has provided the English language with as many pithy quotes as any play Shakespeare wrote, is given room to sing.
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
This is a bold, wholly recognizable “Macbeth,” if not precisely as you might remember it if you’ve ever seen it before.
There’s nothing that original about bathing the story in Scottish fog and shadows, or filming it in black and white. Orson Welles did both in an equally brisk, more equine-friendly budget-studio rendition of “Macbeth” in 1948. The bloodier moments echo Roman Polanski’s 1971 film.
But here are four clever touches that remind us that Joel Coen has four Oscars and a “Buster Scruggs” to his credit.
Coen taps into Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” for the thumping, pounding sound that Macbeth guiltily hears for much of the film after he’s killed King Duncan.
The three witches, the “weird sisters” who foretell Macbeth’s ascension and later his fate, are performed by actress Kathryn Hunter, contorting her voice and (literally) her body to embody the three, sometimes simply seen as one.
Coen promotes the messenger Ross (Alex Hassell) into a full-fledged, priest-cloaked Greek chorus, relating not just messages that advance the plot with tales of far off battles and intrigues, but a close and sometimes silent observer to and possible manipulator of Macbeth’s murderous machinations as the bloodbath begins.
Polanski did something similar with the character, and that fact, and the Wellesian production design, suggests Coen consulted both films before directing his.
And although there are many ways to interpret the play, Coen’s adaptation, in casting the 60something Washington, leans into Macbeth as frustrated by the limits to his advancement and impatient — thanks to his graying, childless advancing age — to seize that which others would deny to him. He is high-handed and tyrannical and impulsive.
What this production team — which includes digital black and white cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, costumer Mary Zophres, production designer Stefan Dechant and art director Jason T. Clark — and stellar cast give us isn’t just a robust rendition that renews The Scottish Play in our memory, but a terrific thriller, a bold, unblinking plunge into murder and madness set against nearly unlimited power.
That has to be what Coen saw in it, an amoral, utterly unethical tyrant who doesn’t “murder somebody on Fifth Avenue,” but acts with equal impunity, fearless of the consequences because “somebody told” him he has nothing to fear. With provisos.
Rating: R for violence
Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson, Alex Hassell, Corey Hawkins, Bertie Carvel, Moses Ingram, Matt Helm, Stephen Root, James Udom and Kathryn Hunter
Credits: Scripted and directed by Joel Coen, based on William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedie of Macbeth.” An Apple Films release of an A24 production.
Running time: 1:45