Nearly nine years have passed since the Coen Brothers wondered, on 700 screens nationwide, what their lives and art would be without each other. For as bleak and apocalyptic as their prognosis was, the simple fact remains, neither Joel nor Ethan Coen are Llewyn Davis. Of course the master filmmaking duo are individually talented, but if anyone needed the proof, Joel Coen’s first solo effort, The Tragedy of MacBeth is a visually stunning powerhouse.
For those unfamiliar, The Scottish Play tracks the rise and fall of fearless warrior, MacBeth (Denzel Washington), in his dogged pursuit of power. After valiantly winning a battle in the name of the crown MacBeth is visited by three witches who deliver a slate of prophecies, none more provocative than the declaration that he is to be King of Scotland. At first skeptical, MacBeth begins to see other prophetic claims come true and soon the prospect of absolute power begins to take hold of his better judgement. Behind the scenes is Lady MacBeth (Frances MacDormand), pulling the strings and goading her husband into a murderous play for the throne. Ambition and morality come to loggerheads as the cruelty of their actions slowly drive these new tyrants to madness.
MacBeth is one of Shakespeare’s most brutal plays, but also his slightest, much of its power lies in the production and performances. Star power is plentiful in Coen’s adaptation, led by a pair of Oscar winners. Washington’s monologues range from rambling insecurity to aggrieved braggadocio. Every contour of the Bard’s work is evident in his darting eyes. MacDormand’s presence is much steadier, proving herself the driving force behind her husband’s film. While MacBeth’s fragility is manipulated, MacDormand’s Lady MacBeth is truly felled by the consequences of her own ambition. While those two carry the film, the supporting cast is tremendous as well. Corey Hawkins, Alex Hassell and Brendan Gleason especially rise to the level of their acclaimed costars.
Where this edition of The Scottish Play really shines though is in Coen’s details. With a story hundreds of years old, adapted to film dozens of times, creating something new requires some creativity. Of the many films from last year filmed in black and white, only Rebecca Hall’s Passing warrants that decision more than The Tragedy of MacBeth. The intersection prominent shadows and piecing light accentuate MacBeth’s internal tug of war between his better angels and darker impulses. As his ambition begins to eclipse reason the cavernous halls of the tyrant king’s castle soak in foreboding shadow. It’s the type of simple decision that in lesser hands would feel cheap or easy but Coen attacks familiar material with intention and precision.
Performance and precise staging come together for Coen’s solo debut and the result is breathtaking. The Tragedy of MacBeth, frankly, is one of the coolest films of the last year. A medieval story performed in Shakespearean prose, yet the whole thing feels wholly fresh. The Coens may be a world class duo, but their success has been on the combination of two sensational individuals. Now we have a film to prove it. 8/10