The Tragedy of Macbeth: Saggy Soliloquy

Joel Coen’s films create special torments from everyday pleasures and jokes from everyday horrors. His world (and that of his brother, Ethan) is emotionally tipsy. In a free-wheeling guitar player bumming rooms and petting cats, he sees a hipster Dante descending into social circles of hell in Inside Llewyn Davis. In the slapstick excesses of Southern charm in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, he sees a Homeric expedition in the shadow of the KKK. In the simple act of writing a screenplay, he turns Barton Fink into a story of madness and artistic crucifixion. Why then, does he see so little in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth? His 2021 adaptation, his first film without his brother, is star-studded, with décor that would have made Dreyer feel powerful, yet the meat of the play is passed off as window dressing. Macbeth disdained fortune in one way to carve his place in the world; Coen disdained it less profitably by managing to take a production so well-endowed and make something so lily-livered. Either the comedic rage wasn’t in him this time, or it was in Ethan all along.

So many performers encrust the crown of this 2021 rendition of Macbeth that I never suspected less than glorious results. Denzel Washington contains the everyman war-hero that could have lent Macbeth his angry glamor (there were hints of it in Glory and whiffs of the madness in Man on Fire). Frances McDormand seems ripe with cunning intellect to soak the role of Lady Macbeth in obscene venom – in even the mundanest roles, she has a piece of the special keep-your-distance sensuality that this part demands. Yet, the two lover-conquerors never congeal, apart or together. Apart, their authority lacks urgency, as though the lines are only lines to them, spoken with sound and even fury, yet signifying nothing. The product of all their glittering heritage is a work of self-important yet unfeeling reading, like students jostled awake in class to take their turn with the obscure passages, each line breaking to reveal a chasm that interrupts all feeling and meaning. And then together, there’s no chemistry or insight, barely a hint of pleasure – this Macbeth and Lady Macbeth could be brother and sister and the on-screen effect would be identical. Even these characters, partners in their shared dark spirit, barely interact with each other within the frame, as though Coen interpreted even the most passionate confrontation as two separate soliloquies. Brendan Gleason as King Duncan is one exception – his eyes seek out his subjects with direct invitations, the expectant soul of a worn King; when he speaks, you’re there with him.

The distance between the performers and the material is only extended by the ages of the two leads, which skews the story's whole feeling due to how many lines require not only emotional vigor but also the concept of youthful ambition to turn emotional tides. This rendition transpires with barely a ripple because Washington (67) and McDormand (65) play the parts as people whose tides have turned already, washing cautiously to shores of acceptance decades ago. Their ships have sailed so much that they're about to be scrapped for lumber, creating an impression of old servants hoping to get their royal dues rather than young moral absconders squandering their potential honor for bloody glory. What is Macbeth surrendering if it’s only in his old age that he makes a last-ditch effort to become king? You would not cower from this Macbeth on the field of battle, as the camera does not; you’d ask him if he needed help getting on his horse. What does it matter that Lady Macbeth turns her milk to gall or dashes the skulls of her potential children if she’s decades past child-bearing age and would have just as much chance of containing milk as Mr. Macbeth? If they are not young, the entire concept of the “tragedy” is undermined by the relative smallness of their sacrifice. When the Lady entreats her husband to “be so much more the man,” there’s barely a hint of the pressure, unique to young men, to strive after ambitious self-destruction for the sake of honoring his woman and her idea of him – between a couple who qualifies for AARP benefits, it sounds like she’s asking him to give Viagra a shot.

The age is a problem with the broader picture of analyzing this rendition. Yet the more pressing, scene-by-scene problem is the unprofitable distribution of Americans throughout the story, which even in the leads robs authenticity and rhythm from the small-time players who accidentally become the scene-stealers. There’s more raucous Shakespearean passion in any line of Kathryn Hunter’s contorted mimicry of the three witches than in all of Lady Macbeth’s monologues, which no matter how well-intentioned seem more demonstrative than passionate (in the “out damn spot” scene, McDormand does everything right in theory, roaring with repressed glamor, yet never shakes the impression of a college professor giving a scene demo). In Washington, his verbal cheesesteak never fully leaves his quick yet graceless readings, resulting in many scenes intended for a warrior’s ire or a king’s distended ego to fizzle in accidental comedy (few actors alive are less convincing saying “wherefore”). Idris Elba and Ruth Negga could have made this story thrum.

The look of the film seems to aim for Dreyer’s sparse-lined shadows and hard walls, those vertical barren fields of stone in the castle in The Passion of Joan of Arc and the grassy fields in Ordet, despite the film's lack of on-location shooting. Several visual effects jolt the film out of its beauty with impressions of self-importance (the most destructive is the use of “epic” slow-motion when Macbeth receives his final reward), but the lights and buildings overall are the most engaging characters, lending some expression to Coen’s algorithmic interpretations of allegedly passionate scenes. All of Hunter’s witch readings sparkle with weird desires mimicked in architecture; Banquo’s (Bertie Carvel) soliloquy is lit by a cutting spotlight, as though the prophecy has made him alone in the world. The scenery is crafted in hard lines and epic stature to present these psychotic impressions of nature and it's the aspect of the film that feels most worthy to be filmed. Yet, many scenes, such as the visitation of Banquo’s ghost, would pass unnoticed to someone unfamiliar with the play due to how much drama, even visual drama, seems to drain from the film's head. Shakespeare's infamous set-pieces are like beautiful pieces of meat moved from beautiful plates to a dying flame, barely reaching a sizzle before being served.

Even the 4:3 ratio recalls the proscenium (the “frame” of the stage), which the film wields consciously for occasional dramatic impact, yet can't escape it as a burden of someone's idea of high art. As a result, Bruno Delbonnel’s camera (he also shot Llewyn and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), stays aloof in this Macbeth, squared off and even, all within a spectrum of the mid-range. This should help draw the viewer into the performers; we should be like the blood pounding in their ears, with no dead space on either side of the frame to distract from their torment. But like Coen’s impression of the emotions, driven by the actors' sleepy incantations, it’s close but not uncomfortably close, not roaring in its harrowed eyeballs or rustling its troubled mind. Even the black and white is stark but not gritty, being too clear, too digitally precise, too afraid of grain and smoke. This façade of artfulness dilutes the energized, dangerous power of the play, missing both 1000s Scotland and 1920s expressionism in its piece-meal artistic components, both of which it seems to strive for. Compared to the raw, brilliant authenticity of The Lighthouse (2019), it’s a pretender to a grisly throne.

The feeling in its ununified artistry is an impression, inescapable to me after seeing half a dozen film versions of this story, that Coen was never able (or never tried) to convincingly transplant the Shakespeare to a new medium. He seems to have hoped to film a play, using film actors. Yet the play’s brutal psychosexual energy is completely clarified as cinematic in Justin Kurziel’s 2015 version, where Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard delivered every inch of Shakespeare’s aching romantic madness in a version unmistakable as an epic. At the opposite end, Kurosawa's Throne of Blood managed to inject primal power from its feudal context to reassess while adapting the honored story without a single line of Shakespeare. Coen’s take feels more like a tribute, like a relic before it even came out. Outside of a few shots of lingering importance, there is no sequence in this new film that defies belief or stirs the heart or punches the gut. It’s as easygoing as life-arresting murderous paranoia could possibly be.

The greatest irony of all is that The Tragedy of Macbeth is among the least Shakespearean of all the Coens’ work, in lacking the Bard’s particular flair for sexual emphasis and the passions of wildly funny yet hurtful extremes that marked fiction forever as a repetition of his brutal acts, rarely more so than in the Coens’ films. There’s more of Macbeth in Gabriel Byrnes’ manipulations of favor with his quasi-king in Miller’s Crossing than in Washington’s off-screen affections to Gleason’s King Duncan (who is equally his age to the year, robbing their entire dynamic of its patricidal context). Barton Fink is more emotionally burdened with his actions, more dispelled into unknown rungs of hellish dissent and mental unraveling, than this Lady Macbeth.

In side performances, such as Macduff’s wife and son played by Moses Ingram and Ethan Hutchison, Coen’s lack of applicable energy to the Shakespeare lines shows even more gravely. In these potential scene-stealers, the actors flounder like second stringers at a community production. Some seem outside the period but not meaningfully incoherent, while others seem matched to the surroundings of the time yet without stylistic purpose. Without a unified aesthetic, the film floats in negative space, neither meaningfully inauthentic nor engagingly accurate. When Ingram says, “What had he done, to make him fly the land?” in answer to her husband’s attendant reporting on his whereabouts, she speaks with a casual 21st-century manner. She might as well be telling him to remind Macduff to pick up milk on his way back. Hunter's astonishing contortion of human nature, even physical nature, by far the film's most memorable aspect, feels like centuries apart from some of the other performances.

Regardless of the viewer's experience with Shakespeare, the film has enough decoration to invite curiosity or even catharsis, to see a brutal geezer get his just desserts and usher in the age of younger, more reasonably rulers. But they wouldn’t get the story in its beating heart; they would never know that Macbeth is the younger, reasonable ruler, and that’s what makes his fall into the raging dark so tragic. Macbeth and his Lady in this context could not be recognized as the origin story of the modern mythology of toxic romances, lacking even a scent of passion, and I fear that not a single line in all of Shakespeare’s great swathes of meaning would stick from this version alone (not even “out damn spot”). Even symbols of change, like a gust of leaves blowing open the castle doors, seem like over-meaningful tricks of the trade compared to the potential poetic intentions lost in the carelessly rushed lines. Coen put together every conversation like a worker laying brick by brick, this line then that line. But as any literature professor would say, after reaching their eyes over the class and silencing the rhythmic mumbling of the uninspired recitations in the room, it’s in the pauses and exclamations, not just the letters, that the tragedy finds its truths.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©A24 and Apple TV+

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