Starting with 1984’s “Blood Simple,” Joel Coen has often explored crime and the resulting comeuppance for those who connive and scheme and commit murder. As he has explained, the killers sometimes go “blood simple,” with simple being slang for crazy.
So it makes sense that Coen has gone to the source material for many theatrical thrillers and film noir — “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
The play takes us into a strange and calamitous world where a noble husband and wife — both of whom are emboldened by a witch’s strange prophecy — plot to assassinate Scotland’s king, setting in motion terror in a world that’s soon enshrouded with regret.
Coen, writing and directing his first movie without his brother Ethan, says he had not considered adapting Shakespeare until he saw his wife, actress Frances McDormand, play Lady Macbeth in 2017 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
In press notes, Coen says he was struck by McDormand’s emotionally intricate take on Lady Macbeth’s desires. “I kept thinking if I could get closer to this with a camera, it will be even more psychological and exciting.”
He then adds: “It seems to me ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ prefigured many of the 20th century tropes of hardboiled fiction. It’s about a couple plotting a murder. That’s James M. Cain.”
So Coen decides to bring that sensibility to his new movie, using an expressionistic design, black and white cinematography and minimalist sound stages that rival the stark visages of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau.
Shadows are everywhere, with light striking at alarming angles. And to get these images, Coen collaborated with Bruno Delbonnel, a five-time Oscar nominee who worked on “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”
Coen and Delbonnel say they wanted the “warped, nightmarish tones” of German Expressionist cinema. “Black and white is already abstracting from the first moment because you’ve taken away the color that your eye normally sees, so the image is already less real,” Coen says. “Nothing in this movie was about realism — realism is the province of movies that we wanted to run away from.”
Contributing to the film’s look are the set designs by Stefan Dechant, who came up with hallways and staircases that threw off beams of light and dramatic contrasts.
While the movie’s design is brilliant, the heart of the story lies with the two stars, Denzel Washington and McDormand. They play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with much maturity and somewhat world-weariness, as if time is running out for them and know they have one last chance to gain the throne.
In some interpretations, Macbeth is portrayed as young and Lady Macbeth is portrayed as a shrewish, evil manipulator. That’t not the case in the Coen movie. McDormand’s portrayal hinges on her being in her 60s, beyond maternity and knowing that time is running out.
And as Macbeth, Washington is far from being a pawn. He’s a war hero, a strong and determined man who starts to feel doomed. Most of all, he has murder in his heart, Washington says in press notes. He then points to Macbeth’s dialogue: “Stars, stars, hide your fires. Let not light see my deep and dark desires.”
There’s a desperation to the murder of the king, and then immediate regrets, despite feeling somewhat omnipotent because a “weird sister” has told Macbeth that he cannot be killed by a man born of woman.
And that brings up the strange and wonderful performance by Kathryn Hunter, who plays the “weird sister” and contorts her body in marvelous ways, sometimes morphing into Shakespeare’s original three “weird sisters.”
Hunter, who was born in New York but works professionally in Britain, is known for her physicality on stage. She was the first British woman to play King Lear professionally, and she’s a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
She joins a stellar list of actors in supporting roles in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” — Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling and Brendan Gleeson. And yes, beware of the daggers in their smiles.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” opens in theaters on Dec. 25. It will premiere on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14, 2022.