The obvious pun paraphrasing that springs to mind with Denzel Washington in the role of Macbeth is “King Duncan ain’t got shit on me!” from Washington’s Oscar-winning turn in Training Day. But under the direction of Joel Coen — who’s going it alone without brother Ethan for his crack at The Tragedy of Macbeth — the more appropriate laugh line, adapted from their O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Is “I am the damn paterfamilias!”
That’s not to say Washington or Coen are inappropriately working outside the malevolent milieu required of them both in William Shakespeare’s story of supernatural intercession for Scottish throne succession. It’s simply to say that among contemporary filmmakers, there may be none better to embrace the tale’s murderous absurdities than one of the Coen Brothers. It’s also to say there are few finer to embody the tragedy’s specifically and sloppily male assertion of fiefdom — and to bear the burden of paterfamilial prophecy, no matter how dunderheaded or delusional — than an emeritus alpha like Washington.
Although Coen strips out his usual colloquial curlicues and parade of puns for a linguistically faithful adaptation of Shakespeare, it’s not difficult to imagine Washington thriving in one of the brothers’ goofier outings should they reunite. (At the risk of praising The Tragedy of Macbeth solely for the sake of its brevity, bravo to Coen, too, for condensing this down to 105 minutes — with neither a moment wasted nor context sorely missed.)
Washington is surrounded by a superb supporting cast, fronted by Frances McDormand’s appropriately modulated mental distress as Lady Macbeth and featuring the controlled contortions of Kathryn Hunter as the Witches (yes to the plural form, no to CG trickery … or at least obvious CG trickery). There’s even room for good luck charm Stephen Root to drop in as the drunken Porter for the rare moment of pure lightheartedness.
Coen visually boxes this behemoth — now playing at Landmark’s Keystone Art Cinema and the Kan-Kan Cinema & Brasserie before streaming on Apple TV+ on Friday, Jan. 14 — into an Academy ratio of 1.33:1, with a vertical black-barred proscenium to complement the sound effect of stage lights clanking on at its start. Meanwhile, the noirish black-and-white work of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel calls to mind not only the obvious touches of German expressionism but, less predictably, the more patient horror stylings of Sam Raimi, alongside whom the Coens came up back in the day.
Sparrows and ravens are outlined in the sky, sometimes clear and sometimes subtle. Spires rise like sabers. Sands and skies swirl into cauldrons of equal enveloping force. Shadows practically drip blood. It’s meant to evoke the eventual fouling of a land as its fate is foretold, death heads formed in both image dissolves and declarations of determined deception. Near its conclusion, Delbonnel pulls off an illusion akin to Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko, forest and castle intertwined like nature and man’s dominion breaking down over it altogether. There’s neither too much of its director’s cheek nor its lead’s ego at play here, and this Macbeth is an effective incarnation of evil, a slowly slit throat, the world ripped open. Something wickedly good this way comes.