The Tragedy of Macbeth Is a Cinematic Feast for Starving Film Lovers

The Tragedy of Macbeth is Joel Coen’s first film without his brother Ethan. And the movie isn’t just a triumph — it’s a reminder that, even with the dismal state of cinema today, movies can still surprise us.

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Lord and Lady Macbeth in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. (Apple / A24)

It’s an amazing thing to watch Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, currently playing on Apple TV+, after seeing a lot of other new American movies recently. The film’s beauty, ambition, and impact are so much greater than what even gets attempted these days, it’s discombobulating — like going up a mountain too fast and feeling faint from the sudden change in altitude.

I’ve read a couple of warnings from critics saying it’s better to know William Shakespeare’s play well before seeing this film — don’t listen to those low-level demons! Just watch the film with your eyes and ears open. Director Joel Coen, working for the first time without his brother Ethan, isn’t interested in making a grandly opaque and inscrutable film. There’s tremendous beauty in clarity, and Macbeth can’t get any clearer than it is here.

Just to give you an example of the boldness and certainty of the approach: there are two words that appear, written out in big, white capital letters on black. The first, appearing immediately as the film begins, is “WHEN,” and the second, coming much later, as all the climactic consequences of dark deeds are converging, is “TOMORROW.”

There’s nothing obscure going on here: time is a vitally important thing in Macbeth, and the onrushing events of the film — in which too much happens too fast — is part of “the tragedy” of trying to overrun the plodding hour-by-hour pace of life that seems to keep Macbeth (the magisterial Denzel Washington) from his goal.

Macbeth is a play about a brave warrior on his way home from defending the realm, victorious in battle, who’s told by three witches that he’s going to become king of Scotland. This prophecy ignites his own dormant ambition and that of his more deadly and determined wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand). Learning of the prophecy from her husband via letter, Lady Macbeth exults that today is of little worth, and tomorrow is all: “Thy letters have transported me beyond / this ignorant present, and I feel now / the future in an instant.”

Together, they go about making the prophecy come true, while reaping the consequences of their bloody ascent to power over many dead bodies. The ages of Lord and Lady Macbeth in this adaptation — at least a generation older than the typical ages — work to the advantage of the film by making their sense of long-overdue rewards rankle, and their desperation to reach the heights more understandable. The obsessive way Lord and Lady Macbeth despise and fight to get clear of the disappointing and confusing present to reach what appears to be the stark and triumphant future, trying to force time to conform to desire and prognostication, is one of many ways that nature is wrenched around and made lethally turbulent in Macbeth.

By the time you arrive at the end, with Macbeth’s famous soliloquy of despair, it has all the weariness of one mentally trapped in a time made up of futile tomorrows and yesterdays, with “today” foreclosed forever: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow / creeps in this petty pace from day to day / to the last syllable of recorded time / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / the way to dusty death.”

But back to the beginning of the film. “WHEN” is spoken by an as-yet-unidentified voice — a typical Coen move, starting films (such as Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men) with the dramatic voice-over of an as-yet-unidentified character, whose vast knowledge of the world we’re about to encounter, agitates the imagination and makes us mentally race to catch up.

We won’t ever be entirely sure of the identities of the mysterious beings that chime in even after we’ve seen them — their numbers, ages, and exact natures are complicated and obscured. It sounds like an eerie ghost child asking, “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”

A deep rasping voice answers, “When the hurly burly’s done / when the battle’s lost and won. / Where’s the place? Upon the heath / There to meet with Macbeth.”

The film’s first images are crows wheeling in the gorgeously doomy fog. Artfully shot in expressionistic black-and-white by Bruno Delbonnel (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Inside Llewyn Davis), who’s now the Coen brothers’ favored cinematographer, this establishes the film’s realm of mist, crows, gnarled trees, lonely roads at night, and looming stone fortresses, full of long hallways and tall arches that all seemed designed to cast immense, abstractly patterned shadows over people hidden within them, conspiring. But for all the shots of starry night skies and high ceilings and great halls, there’s no freeing sense of space. The overall feeling of the film is that of being trapped within a coldly beautiful but dread-filled nightmare or put under an enticing but deadly spell.

In short, if you’re hung up on the style known as “realism,” move on. This ain’t the film for you.

Our first sight of the witch is from overhead, looking down on her black crouched form in white sand. She cranes her head to look up into the fog, showing a fantastically ugly, wrinkled, black-hooded face, and croaks to the crows, “Where’st thou been, sisters? Killing swine?”

Then, as she begins to move, you’ll see the damnedest performance you’ve witnessed in a long while. Stage veteran Kathryn Hunter uses her painful thinness and her ability to contort her body into seemingly impossible shapes, arms bent back at crazy dislocating angles, legs and feet working like arms and hands, to freak you out about Macbeth’s “weird sisters” in a way that makes these lurid old “double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble” characters seem freshly scary again. Then the witch stands up and trots briskly forth in another guise, as a half-human, half-crow, arms akimbo, hands fluttering invisible “feathers.”

Hunter plays all three witches (as well as another part I won’t name, just so you can guess who), identical beings who appear in mind-bending ways, such as one standing on the edge of a pool in which the other two appear as upside-down reflections on either side of her. It’s a vital move to give the weird sisters such power over our imagination at once. Because once Macbeth and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) appear, and stand dazed before the witches, and hear their own brilliant futures prophesied, events will race forward in a way that might be hard to accept if you hadn’t been as jarred out of the ordinary as the two returning warriors are by what they see and hear.

The problem of motivation is a big one in Macbeth: how to turn a valiant, seemingly trustworthy warrior into a man so desperate to seize and hold power he kills former friends and allies in an ever-widening bloodbath and catalyzes a rebellion against his rule far worse than the one he’d just helped put down before mad ambition seized him?

If you look at Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), also based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, you’ll see how thoroughly the issue of motivation is handled in order to make it totally clear. Joel Coen, highly aware of the great directors before him — Kurosawa and Orson Welles, both of whom directed their own mesmerizing black-and-white versions of Macbeth — calls Throne of Blood the best film adaptation of the play, even though it doesn’t take on the Shakespearean language, relocating the story to feudal Japan. Kurosawa uses paranoid fear as the goad that the Lady Macbeth stand-in (Isuzu Yamada) uses to drive her husband (Toshiro Mifune) to murder and usurp the crown of the king (Takamaru Sasaki), convincing him that others are even now plotting against him. Her vision of the world of power is a dark one — for good reason — and she makes a compelling case that in the unstable aftermath of a revolt, others will be seeking greater access to power. How does Macbeth know there isn’t an immediate plot to kill him for his gains?

Coen includes no such lengthy, central scene of persuasion. Though Macbeth has qualms that Lady Macbeth works feverishly to overcome, he’s already overwhelmed by the effects of the witches’ prophecy before he ever sees his wife. We recognize this during his interlude with King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), when Macbeth is still on his way home from battle. There’s Duncan grandly secure in a robe of black patterned with stars, so that the starry night sky above seems to reflect his glory. Though he basks in the king’s favor, Macbeth quickly reveals to us that he’s already poisoned with “vaulting ambition.” As he witnesses Duncan conferring upon his son Malcolm (Harry Melling) not just the promise of inheriting the kingdom someday but a new title making it official, Macbeth’s smile turns queasy, and he hastens to get back to his wife.

As he strides out, Macbeth throws back the tent flap furiously, raging, “Prince of Cumberland! That is a step on which I must fall down or o’erleap, for in my way it lies.”

Later, we’ll see Lady Macbeth “rhyme” that movement as she tosses back a curtain impatiently, preparing to play welcoming host to King Duncan, an irksome chore before the main event of the night — Duncan’s murder.

The film is full of such fabulous matching movements, shots, and artful segues that pull it together tightly like a woven snare. And the film’s emphasis on Macbeth’s craving for power apart from his wife seems to repudiate the shallow take on Lady Macbeth as merely the grasping harpy goading her hapless husband on to evil deeds. The gender politics of the film — and play — are tricky. McDormand’s long-disappointed and now grimly determined Lady Macbeth is aware that her husband’s too-generous supply of “the milk of human kindness” might prevent him from seizing his chance at the crown, even though it’s within his grasp. A minute later, she’s praying to the spirits to “unsex me here,” because if she could become a man she could take violent action, practice the “direst cruelty,” and prevent herself from feeling the emotions associated with the feminine — pity, remorse, and, presumably, the milk of human kindness that is one of her husband’s chief characteristics.

It seems like a tremendous luxury now to see an American film so rich in ideas, sensations, evocative visuals, and compelling rhythms of speech and sound effects. Of course, I’d more than suspected how cinematically malnourished we are, but this feast of a film confirms it. We poor film-watching suckers are starving to death.