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A tale told by a Coen brother — full of sound and fury, signifying what all the other Coen Brothers movies have signified

Like a Technicolor noir or a Seth Rogen drama, a Coen brothers movie based on someone else’s writing is a rare and risky proposition. By my count, only one fully successful example exists: “No Country for Old Men,” adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel.

Then there are the four others that nobody seems too eager to revisit: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (based partly on stories by Stewart Edward White and Jack London), “True Grit” (based on a novel by Charles Portis), “The Ladykillers” (based on William Rose’s screenplay for the original film of that name), and “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” (based on some poetry by a promising newcomer named Homer). One for five would be a lame batting average for anyone, let alone two of the greatest power-hitters of the last few decades. But if there had to be another Coen adaptation, you couldn’t have asked for a snugger fit than “Macbeth.”

The big news about “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is that it’s a Joel Coen movie, not a Coen brothers movie. As early as September 2019, Ethan had gone on the record about growing bored with directing and wanting to do more theater, but initially this didn’t raise much alarm, probably because boredom with the movie industry is a) both Coens’ usual public affect and b) an occasional theme of their movies. Only now is the awful truth sinking in. Directing duos are rare enough to begin with, and to find an equally beloved one that parted ways near the peak of its prestige, you’d need to go back to 1957, when Emeric Pressburger said goodbye to Michael Powell and hello to novel-writing.

Here is probably the place to gush about how much joy the Coens have brought me since that fateful eighth grade school night when my dad hipped me to “Raising Arizona” — but it seems more consistent with the spirit of their movies to write that they’re good men. And thorough.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” cannot be called a change of pace for the co-director of “Fargo,” seeing as it’s a tale of murder, full of vivid bit players and prankish twists of fate and comedy squeezed cheek-to-jowl with tragedy. One way of judging an adaptation is to ask whether it makes the source text feel like a descendant, and on this front the movie doesn’t disappoint. To name only one example: the pissed, prattling porter, here played by Stephen Root, seems more like a creation of Joel Coen’s laptop than one of William Shakespeare’s quill — just as McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” now reads like a novelization of a Coen brothers movie instead of the other way around.

This is not the all-round best “Macbeth” movie (that would be Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” in case you were wondering), nor the most deliciously scary (Roman Polanski’s 1971 version has yet to be bettered in that department), but it has its fair share of delights, and for most of the runtime I forgot I was watching anything other than a Coen brothers movie. A goodly portion of the old team has stuck around: Coen’s wife Frances McDormand plays Lady Macbeth, her eighth role in one of her husband’s films; the black-and-white, minor-key cinematography comes courtesy of Bruno Delbonnel, a collaborator since “Inside Llewyn Davis”; and Carter Burwell drenches the whole thing in the same mournful, ever-so-slightly sardonic orchestral music I can’t imagine the brothers’ oeuvre without.

Our Macbeth is Denzel Washington, rough-cheeked and hollow-eyed and altogether superb as a gruff veteran making a final charge for the crown (or, if you prefer your Shakespeare more politically topical, a selfish Boomer who refuses to pass the torch to the next generation). In the last decade, Washington, 66, has pivoted to playing fathers and mentors and old pros, but this must be one of the first roles in which he comes across as well and truly old — old in the trivial sense of hitting retirement age, but also in the deeper sense of having lived through some shit and limped on, diminished but not dead. (This is an unusually gray-templed “Macbeth” across the board; McDormand is 64, while Brendan Gleeson, cast as poor King Duncan, is only a few months younger than Washington.)

When Washington speaks, he seems to clutch the words close to his chest. He’s the most taciturn of Macbeths; by far the Coen leading man he most resembles is Billy Bob Thornton in “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” There’s an ambitious glint in his eyes, but it’s a low, dull, almost pathetic ambition, like a solitary torch on a windy night.

Torches at night, with all due praise to Washington, may be this film’s greatest selling-point. Visually, the film shares some DNA with the “Macbeth” Orson Welles directed in 1948: they have the same fetish for sharp chiaroscuro and inky silhouettes and clever tricks of perspective (Coen’s film kicks off with a shot of circling crows, and it takes a full minute to realize we’re looking down, not up). Both were shot on soundstages in Los Angeles, and the effect, in the new version rather more than in the old, is one of impressive, sometimes oppressive control. Even the smallest details have a sharp, showoff-y deliberateness. Nothing is left accidental. Coen has lost his partner but not his finesse; his latest has the same high polish that made even “Intolerable Cruelty” tolerable.


If some of this praise sounds a little backhanded, it’s because I’m still making sense of my own slight dissatisfaction, not just with this film but with every film Joel Coen has put his name on since “Inside Llewyn Davis.” More than any directors I’m aware of, the Coen brothers’ strengths are hopelessly mixed up with their weaknesses, and much the same could be said for Joel as a solo artist — he’s so dazzlingly good at doing exactly what he sets out to do that you sometimes forget to ask yourself if it was worth doing at all. The problem isn’t that he’s set the bar impossibly high; it’s that he only thinks in terms of bars and heights anymore — cinema as a precise, powerful contraption, ticking chillily along.

The best critique of the Coen brothers as always-masterful, sometimes-soulless craftsmen comes, courtesy of the brothers themselves, near the end of “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” as a pompous Gallic pianist is attempting to explain the difference between art and technique to Billy Bob Thornton: “Mistake, no. It says E-flat, she plays E-flat. Ping-ping. Hit the right note, always. Very proper … play the piano, is not about the fingers. Done with the fingers, yes. But the music, she is inside.”

Self-awareness is a good alibi, and as far as I’m concerned, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is the most moving film the Coens have made to date, but much of what they’ve done since has made me wonder if that pianist was onto something after all. The almost mathematical rightness of each shot and cut and cue is undeniable, but so, too often, is the weightlessness of all that virtuosity, the speed with which it slips from memory. I know for a fact that I watched all of “True Grit,” but I would be hard-pressed to tell you anything about it — other than that there were no mistakes.

The second-best critique of the Coens as always-masterful, sometimes-soulless craftsmen comes from the critic Kent Jones, who admired the duo but felt that they made films of such “handsome centeredness and machine-tooled regularity” that watching one left a “metallic aftertaste.” Maybe it sounds ungrateful to complain that a film is too handsome, but I know what he’s getting at — there are certain great artists (Nabokov, Stravinsky, Eminem) who develop a style so exquisitely, infuriatingly refined it smothers everything that was alive and surprising about their earlier work.

It’s too early to say for sure, but Joel Coen would appear to be heading in this ominous direction. His is the first “Macbeth” I’ve seen in which there’s no real texture or odor or sweat or grit, which is kind of astonishing for a movie that prominently features a severed human toe. The metallic aftertaste is becoming the only taste.

Coen films have always sunk or swum on the strength of their lead performances. The flat supporting characters — all those grotesque Turturros and Goodmans and Buscemis — can grow anywhere, but the bigger, more rounded roles wilt into caricature nearly as often as they thrive. I love Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski” but not in “True Grit”; Frances McDormand in “Fargo” and “Blood Simple” but not in the other ones (as Lady Macbeth, she’s straight-up miscast); George Clooney in none of his four.

It’s telling that the most indelible Coen protagonists (Thornton in “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” Gabriel Byrne in “Miller’s Crossing,” Michael Stuhlbarg in “A Serious Man”) tend to be the ones who know when to keep their mouths shut: when working with directors who discourage improvisation, silence allows the actor to maintain some air of mystery on an airtight set, to seem spontaneous even on the 20th take.

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For all his taut, brooding silences, Washington’s Macbeth is not one of the great lead performances Joel Coen has directed, not that this is really Washington’s fault. He’s too boxed-in by the editing and the music, never more frustratingly so than during the “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” monologue. For this central moment — in which Macbeth, after much waffling and weighing, finally allows himself to be nudged into action — Coen’s editing itself has an almost musical quality, cross-cutting between the sleeping king’s chamber, Washington’s face and his steps, which are hesitant at first but then faster and firmer.

The accelerating pace and crescendoing noise have their charms, I’ll admit, but they also seem predictable, overly rehearsed, pre-programmed — you feel as though you’re watching a boulder rolling downhill instead of a flesh-and-blood man agonizing over free will. Not even Washington’s sneer is enough to give things a pulse. It’s as much of an opportunity squandered as Astaire and Rogers shot from the neck up.

Maybe that gravitational sense of inevitability is “the point” of the scene (this is, lest we forget, a story about fate) but it ends up feeling like a miscalculation all the same. Because Coen makes Macbeth’s descent into evil so mechanical, his comeuppance brings no catharsis, and this, in turn, makes the climactic swordfight feel weirdly rote, like something out of a duller, dumber movie — compare it, if you need to be reminded how entrancing a done-to-death play can be, with the spectacle of hoarse, howling Toshiro Mifune at the end of “Throne of Blood.” The difference isn’t that Mifune’s is a loud, showy Macbeth and Washington’s is a quiet, subtle one; it’s that Joel Coen’s Macbeth is a pat, tautological creature. His death tells us nothing about humanity’s place in the cosmos that the film hasn’t made clear from the first shot — and nothing the brothers Coens haven’t hinted at again and again since 1984.

In short: Fans who feared some kind of big, conspicuous dip in quality can breathe easy — “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is nothing if not well-crafted, and it is sure to be politely, dutifully received, just like every other movie Joel Coen has directed or co-directed recently. Those of us who’ve sensed a certain listlessness in these movies and were hoping for some kind of big, conspicuous change of pace, however, will have to go on being vaguely disappointed — and hopeful. Incidentally, the first film Michael Powell made after parting ways with Emeric Pressburger was called “Honeymoon,” and if you’ve never seen it, that’s perfectly fine. But Powell’s second solo film was “Peeping Tom,” and if you’ve never seen that, find it, watch it, and discover for yourself how wild a master craftsman can get when he stops trying to be perfect and lets it all hang out.

Jackson Arn is the Forward’s contributing art critic.

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