‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ Film Review: Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand Play Shakespeare in the Dark

New York Film Festival 2021: Joel Coen’s brutally stark, nightmarish vision of “the Scottish play” features both dazzling performances and contemporary resonance

NYFF The Tragedy of Macbeth Denzel Washington Frances McDormand
Apple/A24/Courtesy of New York Film Festival

Crime never pays across the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, whether they’re out for laughs (“Fargo”) or in a mood (“No Country For Old Men”). So it makes bubbling cauldrons of sense that a debut Shakespeare flex for Joel Coen, making his first movie without brother Ethan, would be the Bard’s ultimate comeuppance scorcher, “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”

Despite, that is, having already made one outlaw-couple-on-a-deadend-spree saga. (Sorry, couldn’t ignore linking “Raising Arizona” and Shakespeare in the same review.)

Stacked with great performances, anchored by Denzel Washington’s masterfully weary soldier-turned-murderer Macbeth and Frances McDormand as his hard-edged conspirator-turned-madwoman of a spouse, and starkly rendered in expressionistic black and white, Coen’s version of one of the most oft-quoted of Shakespeare’s works is a bracingly textured cinematic plunge into some classically dark waters.

Other filmmakers have memorably dramatized the “foul is fair, fair is foul” story of the Scottish warrior in a blood-soaked, fearful hurry to realize a destiny that ultimately dooms him — notably Orson Welles’ operatic 1948 psychodrama and Roman Polanski’s naturalistic and personalized horror show from 1971. (The last filmic stab was in 2015.)

But Coen’s pacy, abridged take is a taut feast of shadowy, claustrophobic noir, as if it had been punched out on an Underwood by a bitter, hard-drinking screenwriter in a smoky studio office and handed to a European émigré to visualize like a nightmare. Coen even shot his “Macbeth” wholly on soundstages like a Golden Age auteur, and its coolly modernist sets — designed by Stefan Dechant to spotlight sharp lines, inky recesses, and an austere cavernousness — are an eye-popping plus.

And from the first images of a trio of circling ravens, and a grey mist from which war hero Macbeth (Washington) and his ally Banquo (Bertie Carvel, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell”) emerge to meet the prophesying witches (a contorting, growly Kathryn Hunter embodying all three), it’s also evident this “Macbeth” will be another powerful case for the continued resurgence of the square aspect ratio, especially when it comes to vertical spectacle. Coen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) use this old-fashioned framing with exacting precision, not only to intensify dark-light contrasts but also to center actors like the prized subjects they are in a towering tragedy.

That boxy boundary also allows the brilliantly talented leads to use their close-ups as opportunities to scale stage-burnished verse down for the more intimate cadence of private moments, a true window into the soul. Playing an older-than-usual Lord Macbeth, Washington compellingly charts his corruption and downfall as a grayed, cynical sadness hurtling toward the cliff like a long overdue meeting with the devil, his notion of life as a “brief candle” perhaps long believed before articulating it in Act V. (And true to that reading, the two-time Oscar winner mesmerizingly delivers that legendarily nihilistic soliloquy with trancelike inevitability.)

McDormand, similarly, uses the baggage of years to play Lady Macbeth as equal partner in this last-chance-for-glory scheme rather than the commonly rendered manipulator of an unsure husband. But where Washington’s descent into guilt-ridden self-destruction stays human in its terrible awkwardness, McDormand’s collapse is eerily possessed, like a stricken figure out of a long, lost Carl Dreyer film (Coen’s clearest stylistic influence for the severity of this adaptation). Whether apart or together, Washington’s and McDormand’s turns aren’t just wonderful takes on storied roles — they’re fantastic movie performances.

The rest of the cast is also stellar, from the aforementioned Hunter’s vivid physicality to Brendan Gleeson’s quietly eminent King Duncan to Corey Hawkins’ steely-eyed Macduff as an antagonist fired by youthful integrity and then, of course, righteous vengeance. Carvel’s fatherly Banquo (whose bushy eyebrows feel like the only Scottish touch in this geographically unreal version of “the Scottish play”) is a sympathetic turning-point victim, while Alex Hassell, whose nobleman Ross has been suggestively enriched, turns that enigmatic air into a tantalizing undercurrent of intrigue.

Meanwhile, in noteworthy one-scene parts, Moses Ingram (“The Queen’s Gambit”) as proud mom Lady Macduff, and Coen favorite Stephen Root as the drunken porter musing on alcohol and lechery, bring their own rays of energy to a tale driven by immoral blot, and scored with stern frugality by Carter Burwell.

If there’s a quibble with this graphically imagined “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” it’s one common to the movies Coen made with his brother: It’s ruthless, intelligent, and entertaining, and mightily drinkable as filmmaking, without necessarily raising the emotional temperature past a clinical, grim efficiency. Often, even with the never-not-human Washington going for it, dazzlingly so.

But sometimes we do get the movies our times warrant, and occasionally they’re breathtaking and heartless and scary, and Joel Coen has helped realize them: “Blood Simple,” “Fargo,” “No Country For Old Men,” and now, for a solo venture, a centuries-old mainstay about the poison of all-consuming grievance, fueled by paranoia, and blind to reality. Although it’s too late for this “Macbeth” to be itself a prophecy about those who see a “dagger of the mind,” Coen’s bleakly forceful vision of a sunless land all too susceptible to the violent tyranny of the deluded is, perhaps justly so, a frighteningly ideal companion piece for the fears of our current political era.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” opens in U.S. theaters Dec. 25 and on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14.