Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Tragedy of Macbeth


Director Joel Coen

Joel Coen and Frances McDormand

Denzel Washington with McDormand and Coen

Frances McDormand with Denzel Washington

Director Joel Coen on the set with Frances McDormand

Coen on the set with Kathryn Hunter

Coen on the set with Hunter and Bruno Delbonnel

























THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH                 A                                                                            USA  (105 mi)  2021  d: Joel Coen

Men are probably nearer to the essential truth in their superstitions than in their science.         —Henry David Thoreau, Journal entry June 27, 1852 

According to Joel Coen at the New York Film Festival premiere, “Of all the heterosexual relationships in Shakespeare there are a lot of good ones, but there’s only really one good marriage.  And that’s the marriage of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  They happen to be plotting to kill someone, but the marriage is good.”  Shakespeare’s Macbeth is his shortest tragedy and his most fatalistic play, exuding an excess of blood and carnage, filled with murder, foul play, and a grim atmosphere of doom in the air, adapted into more than 25 different movies since 1908, though easily the standouts are Orson Welles’ minimalistic 1948 version that is stripped down and heavy on the visuals, creating a picture of austerity, fog-laden and barren, with macabre overtones, coming after his all-black theatrical production in 1936 entitled Voodoo Macbeth, moving the setting from Scotland to a fictional Caribbean island, much like Paul Robeson doing Eugene O’Neill’s one-act play in The Emperor Jones (1933),  This was followed by Kurosawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD (1957), which may be the most successful film version, though it departs from the specifics of the play, told through a cultural shift into Noh theater, which elevates the egoistic qualities of Macbeth, forever losing himself in misty forests shrouded in fog, believing he is invincible due to the witches’ prophecy, even while the world around him turns into utter chaos, falling into a devastating picture of existential turmoil, with everyone around him trying to save themselves, subject to an incessant volley of arrows that eventually leads to his doom.  Roman Polanski’s MACBETH (1971), filmed in the aftermath of the gruesome Sharon Tate murder by the Charles Manson gang, is one of the darker and bloodier adaptations, seemingly shot in the mud of the medieval age, accentuating nudity and grotesque violence, while Béla Tarr’s MACBETH (1983) made-for-television consisted of only two lengthy shots, the first shot (before the main title) is five minutes long, the second 67 minutes long, streamlined to only 72-minutes, while more recently Justin Kurzel’s MACBETH (2015) featured big named stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in an arthouse version that seemed to accentuate a bloodbath on the battlefield, receiving critical praise, but was a dud at the box office, so few actually saw it.  Joel Coen’s rendition resembles the austerity of Welles, but the mindset of Kurosawa, a film that brings the illusory nature of power into even sharper focus, using theatrical devices, like a direct address or asides to the audience, and veterans of the Royal Shakespeare Company, leading to an exquisitely filmed black and white version by French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, with so much of the film shot in shadows, compressed in size to the boxed-in 4:3 aspect ratio which only escalates the psychological dilemma of enveloping claustrophobia, with Stefan Dechant’s minimalist production design which is nothing less than stunning, an ominous and simply extraordinary sound design by Craig Burkey, and an equally phenomenal musical score by Carter Burwell.  All these things add to a uniquely compelling cinematic version of one of the best Shakespeare plays, certainly his darkest and gloomiest, yet the experience is positively exhilarating from start to finish, sure to be studied by film schools in the future.  Certainly one of the things that stands out is the exactness of the opening title sequence, in perfect precision with the music, much like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) title sequence - YouTube (1:58).  Starring Denzel Washington as a calmer and more reflective Macbeth, known for his military exploits, yet remains surprisingly indecisive, where it’s not often this actor plays a deranged killer, a marked difference when it comes to an appeal to our sympathies, and Frances McDormand as his conniving Lady Macbeth, basically serving as Iago to her husband, planting the seeds of evil, yet the old world 17th century language of the play may actually be the weakest element, as the stunning visual presentation marks this as one for the ages, using a highly stylized aesthetic that is an altogether different look for the Coens.  Curiously, in the very first Coen brother film, Blood Simple (1984), starring a very young Frances McDormand at age 27, a murder was committed, but much like this film, trying to wipe it away becomes one’s worst nightmare, as it only aggravates the deepening torment building inside.  The essence of Macbeth may be captured in the words of 19th century American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, “Men are probably nearer to the essential truth in their superstitions than in their science.”  One only needs to evaluate the transformation of the American Republican Party into rabid delusions and conspiracy theories under Trump, where appearance represents the new reality, a tweet, a catchy phrase, a sound bite for television, which can rapidly spread to mean just about anything in the minds of the listener, hearing only what they want to hear, thus becoming a rallying cry for freedom.  Similarly, the character of Macbeth is transformed by witchcraft, as early in the play a witches’ prophecy leads Macbeth to believe he will become King of Scotland, yet how this plays out in his mind becomes the emphasis of the storyline, resorting to a notorious sleepwalking scene, hallucinations, and murderous delusions of grandeur, where the imagination of the protagonist runs wild, providing chilling testimony to the moral limits, or lack thereof, of the human condition, which must have frightened the playwright when conceiving the story, and should terrify any audience witnessing the play, as it similarly relies upon the horror of our imaginations, where the full effects of the tragedy is how it plays out in our own minds.  

The first Coen brother film to be directed without the other brother’s involvement, having a limited theatrical release prior to streaming on Apple TV+, shot entirely on sound stages, it evokes the murky netherworld atmosphere of Dreyer’s VAMPYR (1932).  Unlike other Shakespeare villainous protagonists like Richard III, Iago, or Edmund, who all delight in their own wickedness, Macbeth broods in his own suffering, knowing what he does is evil, and that the future will bring even worse.  It takes a certain audacity to write a tragedy around a murderer and tyrant, who initially seems so different than any of the rest of us, yet like Hamlet, Macbeth dominates the play, where there is nowhere else to turn, with viewers literally consumed by the vile contamination of his character.  Lady Macbeth has her own villainous ambitions, and is a co-conspirator in his murders, yet she is killed off early in the final Act, leaving Macbeth alone to wreak havoc until the tragic finale, both unable to wipe the blood from their hands, both literally and figuratively, surrounded only by secondary characters who are never individualized, leaving viewers feeling complicit in his foul deeds, sharing the same space together, joined in spirit, sullied by the same treachery.  Macbeth is a companion piece to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, each a prolonged nightmare lifted into the realm of art, as in each the protagonist is hounded by their own guilt, and the ripple effect it has even within our own collective souls, becoming studies of evil through murder.  Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that the shocking opening of this film is a percussive strike, like turning on a light switch, followed by a quick shift to a white screen, a sign of innocence, held for some length, before ravens begin to swoop and circle overhead, diving in and out of the clouds, resembling the Dementors in Harry Potter lore.  Stripped of everything but the essentials, this is abstract, modernist theater, where Macbeth’s castle has tall rectangles and arches, with strong diagonals, and an open ceiling high above with a bird’s eye view weighing down on the characters below, providing an oppressive look that at times resembles Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (1927), where the stage is a mere outline, more suggestive than real, a visual construction that challenges viewers to look at the film differently, providing texture rather than a built set, allowing the minds of viewers to fill in the rest.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the witches’ sequence, which may as well be taking place on the surface of the moon, as it’s a white, sandy surface with no vegetation anywhere in sight, shrouded in a white mist, with all three witches played by Kathryn Hunter, looking thin and ghoulish, more like an apparition than real, a lone figure standing before a water pond, generating two shadows, blending two voices that merge into three, issuing her prophecy to Macbeth and Banquo (Bertie Carvel), returning victors in war, proclaiming that someday Macbeth will be King, yet Banquo will father a line of kings.  This entire sequence resembles a dream, or a hallucination, yet both men are clearly affected by what they hear, felt to the core like a Biblical proclamation, where there is little doubt it will come true.  As they are welcomed back by King Duncan (Brandon Gleeson), the traitorous Thane of Cawdor is executed, with Macbeth assuming his title, with the King naming his own son Malcolm (Henry Melling) as Prince, which irks Macbeth, blocking his line of ascension to the throne.  When Duncan spends the night at Macbeth’s castle, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth conjure a deadly plan to hasten his ascension, believing their cause is just, as they’re only following the prophecy, yet in their haste, they fail to consider alternative meanings, hearing only a partial truth, taking the words literally, willfully deceiving themselves in their zealous rush to power, a fatal mistake.  Lady Macbeth drugs the guards, allowing free entry for Macbeth, who has a lengthy soliloquy summoning his courage, filled with existential torment, drawing inspiration from the image of a dagger leading to the King’s chambers, as if guiding him to his destiny, with day turning into night in a single shot.  Even afterwards when Lady Macbeth grows frustrated at what he failed to do, she is forced to return to the scene of the crime, placing bloody daggers in the hands of the inert guards.  Both are plagued by visions of blood afterwards.  Thinking it is one thing, but carrying it out is another matter, as the act of murder carries consequences not easily forgotten.  At dawn, Macduff (Corey Hawkins) discovers the body, with Macbeth murdering the disoriented guards, claiming they are to blame for the betrayal of the King.  In the chaos that ensues, Malcolm and Duncan’s two sons escape to England, and later Macduff, while Macbeth assumes the throne as the new King of Scotland.  However, the fact that those who fled miraculously survived is the stuff of Macbeth’s nightmares, which to a large extent sets the tone for the film.  No one else in Shakespeare is so entirely engulfed in the occult, with the witches seemingly drawn to him, playfully preoccupied by his overly susceptible mindset, as if toying with him for their own amusement, often disguising themselves or changing shapes to widen their influence.  His propensity for psychic visions, however, has a drastic effect on the audience, overwhelmed, perhaps, by how weakly he resists their supernatural influence, instead embracing them fully, something that might cause a reasonable man to hesitate. 

Aware of the prophecy, Banquo also tries to escape, but is murdered by thugs hired by Macbeth, while Fleance, Banquo’s son, is strangely allowed to escape by Ross (Alex Hassell), also known as the Third Murderer, supposedly an ally of Macbeth (though in some versions this role was reserved for Macbeth himself, in disguise), yet he cleverly exhibits ulterior motives, a role figuring more prominently in this version.  What follows is an intense scrutiny of the deep recesses of the subconscious, climbing through a labyrinthian maze of illusions and dreams, where an enveloping darkness pervades every aspect of what we see, often shot at odd angles to accentuate the degree of irrationality.  Both Macbeth and his wife fall into psychological turmoil for what they’ve done, with Macbeth the first to grow delirious at a royal dinner, imagining seeing the ghost of Banquo, fighting him off before the invited guests, who see nothing but a King stark raving mad, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, apparently seeing things that aren’t there, like fending off a menacing raven, with Lady Macbeth opening the window allowing the raven to escape.  Embarrassed by what she sees, Lady Macbeth dismisses the guests while sedating her husband, yet rather than having a calming effect, Macbeth is visited by witches in the rafters, conjuring up visions of Fleance offering warning signs to beware Macduff, proclaiming he will be King until Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane, and that he shall be harmed by no man born of a woman.  Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most internalized drama, where the character is a rush of nervous irritability veering towards a heart of darkness, confronting unknown realms where fears rush in, filled with hysterical passion, where the thunderous pounding at the door, and the tolling of the bell, seem to anticipate anxiety and dread, as if summoned from the depths of the subconscious, using a German Expressionist look to exemplify his growing anguish.  The stylishness of the film is a stark contrast between black and white, where the geometric design of the castle reveals a cold interior, haunted by the shadowy nature of the figures seen, with exaggerated flourishes that exacerbate the forbidding nature of what we see.  What makes this so cinematic is that Macbeth is a visionary drama, where the protagonist views himself as an involuntary seer, viewed almost through the occult, fully open to the mischievously playful spirits of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest, where the blurring of identity through fantasy takes on a different persona.  Lady Macbeth, for instance, is considerably more enterprising than her husband, yet she falls into a psychic decline, where their monstrous ambitions to the throne seem grotesquely inadequate, made worse by having no child to inherit the throne, as what led them to believe they in any way deserved the crown?  What in either one of them ever pondered a single thought about serving or benefiting others?  The narrowness of their vision couldn’t be more unwavering and absolute, thinking only of themselves, and be damned of all others.  In the play, their lust for the throne is mirrored by their sexual desire, becoming one and the same, though the older age of the actors may explain their understated, more world-weary approach, both in their mid-60’s (by comparison, Welles was 33 as Macbeth, his Lady Macbeth was 37, in Kurosawa, Macbeth was 36, his Lady Macbeth was 39, while in the Polanski version, Macbeth was 28, his Lady Macbeth was 26), deflecting the sexual aspect and instead focusing on being childless, which seems to be an emotional fissure between them, still grieving over a lost child, where the crown instead of an heir will be their final legacy, actually changing the order of some of the dialogue to accentuate this heartbreak, yet it is lust just the same, even as it evolves into a lust for blood.  The royal couple falls apart once he ascends to the throne, while she angrily makes references to his deteriorating interest, which leads to a futile sense of personal exasperation, seen sleepwalking at night, where she lays open her guilty conscience, leaving servants astonished and appalled.  Of all of Shakespeare’s protagonists, Macbeth exhibits the least amount of free will, drifting passively along on a perilous wave of fate, where his invincibility, determined by the witches’ prophecy, makes him do the things he does, murdering all his rivals to the throne, none more brutal than Macduff’s wife and children, yet somehow believing that’s in his best interest.  Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, is the personification of free will, that is until she cracks, leaving him suffocating in the void of his own emptiness, Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow - Scene from The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) YouTube (1:01).  Her collapse only makes him more paranoid and fearful, sapping him of all his strength, no longer able to distinguish illusion from reality, losing himself in his own murderous delirium.  The darkest Shakespearean design is the economy of this work, where Macbeth’s fall comes quickly, with much of the action taking place at night, where Macbeth turns into a visionary maniac, obsessed, it seems, by the surrounding disharmony of the universe, eventually forfeiting his humanity, as the film progresses towards its catastrophic conclusion.  Part of the ultimate terror is realizing just how rapidly Macbeth succumbs to his own delusions, with the film racing towards its inevitable finale, jumpstarted here with Hitchcockian aplomb by opening that castle window, with all the leaves of Birnam Wood flying in with an apocalyptic force.  Seemingly sucking all the air out of the room, more and more he seems to lose all cognitive powers, blinded by his venomous ambition, leaving him numb to the winds of fate, which take him where they may, leaving him a shell of his former self.  When Ross reveals the news of his family to Macduff, he grows so incensed in anger that he demands retribution for the crime, joining forces with Malcolm in leading English forces against the tyrannical despot, with Macduff declaring he is not born of a woman but instead “untimely ripped,” fulfilling the prophecy, taking us down that final descent into Hell, completely in simpatico with Colonel Kurtz at the end of APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), with a massive flock of screeching birds entirely blocking off the light, quickly darkening the screen to black.