Life’s But an Existentialist Shadow in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth

How do I even write about this? Joel Coen has created a stunning, often terrifying, German Expressionist-ish take on Macbeth that, when it chooses to be, tips into full horror. While it isn’t my favorite take on the play (that would Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood) this is the first time I’ve seen a Shakespeare adaptation and immediately wanted to rewatch it before the credits were even done rolling.

I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this you know the plot of Macbeth, so allow me to hasten to the important stuff: Joel Coen chose to take this on as a solo project, without his usual partner Ethan, and he adapted the play himself. What he chose to do in this adaptation was mine every vein of horror in the play, no matter how tiny, to create a movie about a curse grinding someone down to powder. I’ll talk more about the horror elements in a sec, but first:

Denzel Washington is goddamn incandescent as Macbeth. I mean, I expected him to be good, he’s Denzel Washington—but this trampled all over my expectations. He begins the story as a man already maybe a little too curious about finding an easy path to glory, but also prone to an excellent sardonic wit. Watching him wring himself inside out with paranoia and guilt is simply beautiful. And the best part, for me, is that his Macbeth becomes more compelling as his crimes pile up. Rather than becoming increasingly paranoid and defeated, Washington’s Macbeth becomes increasingly paranoid and powerful, seeming to gain strength from knowing that everyone has turned on him.

Frances McDormand is the Lady Macbeth I’ve wanted all my life. She brings a desert-dry wit to the role that makes lines like “Who’d have thought the old man to have so much blood in him” fucking sing. Would I risk it all to murder my beloved king and usurp his throne if she asked me to?

YES.

I wouldn’t even ask her to repeat the question.

Screenshot: A24

But here’s the thing, the reason I wanted to write about it here—Macbeth is a horror, right? Macbeth, who as far as we know at the opening is a decent man, a loyal subject to his King, and great in battle is, for reasons that are never made clear, targeted by a trio of witches. They tell him a prophecy, knowing full well this will completely derail his life. Do they know about Lady Macbeth’s admirable bloodthirstiness? Do they believe that such a prophecy will be the undoing of any man? Is this a riff on the Book of Job, where a powerful supernatural entity decides to test a mortal’s moral character? Or do they wake up and say “Fuck the Thane of Glamis in particular”? Because they give a slightly more reasonable prophecy to Banquo—by telling him that his sons will be kings, they give him hope for the future. Delayed gratification. He can sit back and wait for destiny to come to him, while Macbeth looks at an alive king and his two alive sons, and decides he needs to take a more active role to make his prophecy a reality.

We’re left with the basic Oedipal question: if Macbeth had just continued being Thane of Glamis and Cawdor, a loyal subject and friend to the King, would other events have transpired to give him the Throne? Would the royal family have all died of pneumonia after staying the night in Macbeth’s enormous drafty castle? Or maybe both sons would have abdicated and run away to study at Wittenberg, like a certain Danish prince should have done, leaving the King with no choice but to name his trusted friend Macbeth as his heir? Or, I don’t know, multiple horse accidents! That had to happen a lot in the Middle Ages?

But no, the Macbeths go leaping straight for regicide.

In both Washington’s and McDormand’s performances, this felt to me like the two of them were bound to this path by a terrible destiny. They don’t enjoy their rule—only the anticipation of it. Macbeth begins seeing ghosts immediately, and Lady Macbeth only holds herself together slightly longer, seemingly because she’s trying to add some steel to her husband’s spine. But then, as she cracks, he grows stronger again? I loved the idea that the two of them are locked together, feeding from each other without even realizing. Their first few scenes are also… well, one hesitates to say “nice”, but they’re really a team! While I was watching it occurred to me that they’re the only couple in Shakespeare who treat their marriage as a true partnership, and then I found a quote from Joel Coen saying the same thing: “In the context of Shakespeare it’s a good marriage, they love each other. They happen to be plotting a murder, but hey, it’s OK.”

But what’s at the heart of the horror?

Screenshot: A24

First Coen creates an inescapable sense of atmosphere. This film, maybe more than any version of Macbeth I’ve seen, feels like the thane’s crime has knocked nature itself out of joint. Thick mists roil across the camera, crows burst out of fields like malevolent clouds, the stars seems a little too bright—I began to wonder if Coen was going to go off book and bring some eldritch monster down on the Macbeths. The entire film plays out like a nightmare—but the standard issue nightmare is nothing compared to the scenes with The Witches.

I don’t want to spoil The Witches—if you haven’t seen the film yet, and plan to, skip down a paragraph so you can meet them, as I did, with NO IDEA what was about to happen. I’ll let you know in bold when the spoilers are over.

 

The Witches are played by Kathryn Hunter, who you might have seen as Arabella Figg in the Harry Potter movies. When they first appear—well, only one appears, because Coen works the camera so that you, the viewer, become the other two Weird Sisters, and Sister #1 is speaking to you directly. This is fucking terrifying, first of all, but it also makes you the viewer complicit in whatever curse or temptation is being laid upon Macbeth. (Their scenes are also where Coen chooses to cross his German Expressionist influences with something that feels like The Seventh Seal.) Only later do we see all three Witches, and then it’s like this:

Screenshot: A24

Their second appearance is somehow ever scarier? They come to Macbeth, and even as they warp his castle around him and conjure a scrying pool in what used to be his floor, he seems to think that he’s the one commanding them. When he’s told that no man born of woman can kill him, he immediately files it under “I’m immortal now, and that’s rad” instead of questioning the way these prophecies seem to be changing, or seeing any potential pitfalls. He is a man whose very reality is being manipulated before his eyes, but he thinks he’s in control. Meanwhile The Witches hover in the rafters above him, looking down on him and waiting for him to take their bait. Coen also changes the ending of the play a tiny bit to hammer home the idea that The Witches have been twisting everyone around their gnarled fingers, and it’s great.

 

SPOILING OF WITCHES IS OVER!

Corey Hawkins and Moses Ingram are both excellent as the couple MacDuff—if this cold, stark  film has a heart, it’s shared between the two of them. And as if all of this wasn’t enough, Stephen Root is in the movie! Our Greatest Living Character Actor turns up as the Porter, a tiny comic relief role that he milks for all its fun and Shakespearean gross-out humor. Carter Burwell’s score is ominous and boils up just like the mists.

Screenshot: A24

I’ve said a lot here, but I’m still not sure exactly how to talk about this movie. What it reminded me of most was an earlier Coen outing, A Serious Man. That movie also wound itself around questions of fate and choice, as one beleaguered professor tried to understand what it means to be a “good” person, particularly a good Jew, in the face of impossible odds and possible divine retribution, and it seems that no matter what choices he makes, Larry Gopnik’s life falls to pieces around him. But that movie is resolutely real, solid, Mid-Century Modern—only in the very last scene does it seem to tip over into the mythic.

With The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Coen seems to be imagining something more like a Calvinist horror of predestination, or maybe a Bergman-esque, old school Lutheran slasher film? We don’t see Macbeth fight the prophecy. We don’t see him deny it. (And his wife isn’t so much a spider being held over a flame as a spider enthusiastically cannonballing into the inferno.) Instead it seems that he’s dragged along by fate with his eyes wide open to all the uncanny horror of being chosen to suffer—up until the moment he seems to think he’s invulnerable, which is when his destiny really begins toying with him. Joel Coen has created a world that is an unrelenting tightening fist, and turned Macbeth into even more of an existentialist horror than it already was.

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