O Banquo, where are you?
Oof course macbeth is a film by the Coen brothers. The Scottish play is essentially a hug: a criminal plot is hatched and executed, much like in Raising Arizona Where Fargo. A sin The lady killers — criminally ignored, by the way — the plot unfolds without a hitch just before the middle of the action, after which the ruthless hand of cosmic justice begins a long and bloody rebalancing.
The Coens, like William Shakespeare, believe that fate has moral status and even a strange sense of agency, that we can glimpse one bloody woodchipper or one piss-stained carpet at a time. In The Hudsucker Proxy, there’s a moment when a shockingly benevolent Deity rips a poor soul out of the air – that hallucinatory sequence in which young Norville Barnes is simply not allowed to crash on a Manhattan sidewalk, and the laws time and physics reverse in order to keep our whole world. In a strangely parallel scene in Macbeth’s Tragedy, the Joel Coen-directed adaptation of Shakespeare that premiered in theaters last month and on Apple TV+ on January 14, Macduff’s son is hurled from a high tower into a cloudy abyss of certain death. No hidden intelligence saves him.
Part of what makes the Coens’ work so enduring, and part of what gives it a Shakespearean thrill of mystery and gravity, is their fascination with how and if the hidden forces that choose to save or kill a falling child are linked to each other. To paraphrase one of the most vexing lines in Coen’s filmography: does the play really have a say? Here’s a similar question about the potentially non-arbitrary distribution of good and evil by the gods: Would Macbeth ever have become king if the three Weird Sisters hadn’t assailed him on his return from the battlefield?
The most jarring Coenian moment passes quickly in this stark, austere macbeth, a film whose eerily clean aesthetic is the stark contrast to the taverns and muddy battlefields of Orson Welles’ Shakespeare films. Macbeth, played by a Denzel Washington who is clearly profiting from his brief reign as a crazed tyrant, hatches a plot to kill Banquo and his son. The two men tasked with this darkest task of all are wild-haired mumblers, and in the film’s sharp black and white their faces are streaked like the lunar surface, a living testimony to an anonymous lifetime conveyed in a few short seconds. . We’ve met these guys before, in saloons in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs or maybe on the chain gang in O brother, where are you? Coen’s work is populated by minor secondary characters drawn from the realm of American myth: rabbis quoting rock music, gas station preachers preaching, undertakers guarding access to the afterlife. The brevity of these characters’ screen time only increases their impact, turning the Coens’ world into a pageant of familiar grotesques, a parade of brief visitors whose strangeness only makes everything more recognizable to us. Shakespeare uses his supernumeraries to suggest an equally seductive line between the strange and the painfully human, as when a deranged monarch, one of literature’s synonyms for monumental ambition, sends two nameless thugs to murder a child.
at Macbeth virtues and flaws help deliver a verdict on one of the most important and original works in the history of American cinema. Even without Ethan involved, Shakespeare’s play becomes a mirror of the Coen brothers’ best and worst aspects. As a visually arresting, madness-filled, hallucinatory, and often highly moralizing investigation into the machinations of fate told through a vast array of strange and intense personalities, macbeth works for many of the same reasons Coens projects usually work. But the Coens’ films often blur as soon as they touch the human base, and macbeth is a case in point.
Any interpreter of macbeth, whether they’re directing amateurs or Oscar winners, must decide whether Banquo’s ghost is an imaginary manifestation of a sinful, deteriorating mind or an actual ghost occupying real physical space, a being that the audience can see . Here we have one of Joel Coen’s most egregious acts of separating differences. Coen portrays the murdered Banquo; meanwhile, guests at Macbeth’s banquet see the king wrestling a large black bird of a kind that appeared earlier in the film, in association with the three witches and thus with the larger themes of the play, the fate and free will. In an unsatisfactory directorial escape, the dead Banquo is both a function of Macbeth’s madness and a bodily way to punish a corrupt man. Making a choice here might have told us something about Coen’s take on the main character and the significance of his downfall. The lack of choice only tells us something about Coen.
There is a similar confusion in Frances McDormand’s confused depiction of Lady Macbeth. McDormand brings a tone of bland insistence to the most complex of all Shakespearian women, chiding and mildly shaming her husband into killing him. Is it fair that Washington dominates and eclipses it? Washington nails the highlights: In his best interpretation, Coen places the terrifying, even apocalyptic recitation of Washington’s “tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow” speech on a huge curved staircase, the king gazing at the dead Lady Macbeth sprawled beneath him . But Washington is as unconvincing as McDormand during the play’s wooden and obviously sexless uphill action, mumbling and even panicking over critical motive questions and only lingering in the role after Macbeth’s heel turn.
The fault lies with Coen – we’ve seen enough of his movies to know what they can and can’t do. The main failure of the brothers is that they are not convincing in the representation of human subtlety. Miller crossing is an indefinitely quotable but inevitably mechanical affair; we can rejoice in the exaggerated style of The Hudsucker Proxy while finding the heartless thing. The Coens don’t tell romance stories very well, if at all — it’s no surprise that Joel found nothing interesting to do with the Macbeth wedding. Why expect anything else?
The brothers’ movies tend to be more impressive the less you think about them deeply. For all its greatness, There is no country for old people is still a sort of nihilistic meta-study of the predictable behavior of various moral archetypes when prompted by a large pile of money – it’s only in Tommy Lee Jones’ cryptic final monologue that one of the characters stands beyond or outside of this Rube Goldberg human path addiction machine, but by then the movie is over and it’s far too late.
It’s no coincidence that Coen’s best films are the ones that are the most different from the rest: A serious man and Inside Llewyn Davis avoid any philosophy that is too stylized to give us two very different and entirely believable images of human frailty. The great Lebowski, the supreme feat of the Coens and perhaps the greatest American comedy other than Dr Strangelove, is a metaphysical detective novel whose characters have all the slipperiness of real people, which partly explains why the film is inexhaustible. macbeth is just a little too exhausting – its mysteries reveal themselves too easily, as in much of the rest of the Coens’ work.
macbeth exposes the serious limitations of a great filmmaker, but the film also constantly reminds us that a director doesn’t need to master every nuance of the human soul to create touching works of art. Coen has always had a John Ford sense of the kinds of images, landscapes and faces that work on film. A lot of macbeth‘s the dark momentum owes to Kathryn Hunter, a shapeshifter with a grating voice from a hellish afterlife. The 64-year-old, who plays the three Weird Sisters, is a stage legend in Britain whose on-screen credits are limited to a few cameos in the Harry Potter films of long ago. Coen squeezes every drop of surprise out of Hunter’s first and perhaps only big screen turn, filming her in a whirlwind of high and low angles, probing her unreal face from above and below as her body multiplies and merges with itself. Whatever their flaws, Joel Coen’s films are propelled by a startling newness that is almost never won cheaply, effectively imitated, or easily forgotten. Of course, there are harder feats for an artist to pull off than that. But not very many.
Armin Rosen is a traveling reporter based in New York for Tablet.