When historians evaluate the Coen brothers’ filmography decades from now, The Tragedy of Macbeth will stand out for a few reasons. To begin, only one-half of the duo wrote and directed the film, marking Joel’s first solo effort. Composer Carter Burwell has stated that Ethan is no longer interested in making movies. The Tragedy of Macbeth could thus signify a turning point for the Coens with only Joel in the director’s chair going forward. While it’s hard to imagine one brother without the other, adapting a William Shakespeare play is equally surprising.
Together or apart, the Coens have a distinct voice that shines through in all of their work. Even an adaptation like No Country for Old Men has the Coen seal of approval. So, Joel’s desire to adapt an iconic play seemed to come out of nowhere. Then again, a lot of the Coens’ work has Shakespearean touches. Jerry’s character arc in Fargo walks a fine line between Shakespearean comedy and tragedy. Anton Chigurh’s monologues are every bit as commanding as a Shakespearean villain’s. The Big Lebowski even inspired a book entitled Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, finding common ground between Shakespeare and the Dude. In that sense, perhaps it was only a matter of time until at least one of the Coens went full Shakespeare.
If you’re at all familiar with the source material, there isn’t much point in discussing the plot. Coen’s faithfulness to Shakespeare is both a pro and con. This is one of Shakespeare’s most famous works and while it still holds up, we’ve seen it before. Being such a unique voice, one can’t help but wish that Coen had put an ironic twist on the familiar story. You know, kind of like taking Homer’s Odyssey and turning it into O Brother, Where Art Thou?. As far as straight Shakespeare adaptations go, though, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a solid one.
Where Roman Polanski’s version clocked in at two hours and twenty minutes, Coen manages to condense the story into a respectable hour and forty-five minutes. Along the way, Coen loses some of the dialogue that didn’t age gracefully. Seriously, what kid says, “He has killed me, mother,” as they’re dying? The film’s craft is where Coen leaves his signature, however. Coen has replicated the sensation of watching a stage play with the whole film being shot on sound stages. Stefan Dechant’s sets and Bruno Delbonnel’s black and white cinematography are less extravagant than what you’d see in a Kenneth Branagh production. Yet, they give the film an otherworldly sentiment that emphasizes Macbeth’s descent into madness.
While Coen’s screenplay isn’t as ambitious as his direction, The Tragedy of Macbeth nails its casting. Frances McDormand is tailormade for the cold-hearted Lady Macbeth, but the film belongs to Denzel Washington as the titular mad king. We’ve seen Washington play heroic figures in the Equalizer, bad mother-f***ers like Alonzo Harris, and even Shakespearean characters like Don Pedro. We get to see every dimension of Washington here as Macbeth becomes consumed by greed, insanity, and the crown he’d go to war for. When you think of Macbeth, Washington might not be the first casting choice that comes to mind. From beginning to end, though, Washington is lord of the screen. The film itself might’ve been more interesting had it taken a modern day approach, which Washington also would’ve thrived at. Nevertheless, for yet another retelling of Macbeth, the performances and production values more than justify its existence.
And yes, Two Gentlemen of Lebowski is a real book. Check it out: