A Coen Brother’s Brilliant Macbeth

A Coen Brother’s Brilliant Macbeth


Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’A24 FILMS

Joel Coen’s new film is a surprising capstone to the brothers’ razor-sharp oeuvre.


The director Sam Raimi once remarked that the Coen brothers’ movies obey three rules—the innocent must suffer, the guilty must be punished, and you must taste blood to be a man. There might be a fourth rule, Raimi added: The dead must walk. Shakespeare’s Macbeth embodies all these traits of the Coen canon. But Joel Coen’s Macbeth goes beyond the movies he made with Ethan, which were infected by a glorious wiseass sensibility. There is no virtuoso madcap side to this Macbeth, and no trace of sarcasm. Here the older Coen brother is as serious as fate itself, and dark as blood. He has made by far the best film Macbeth, outshining the famous versions by Welles and Polanski.

The Tragedy of Macbeth, the first movie directed by Joel without Ethan as producer, will open on Dec. 25. Ethan, now writing plays in LA, has announced that he wants to devote himself to theater rather than cinema. There’s no better time than this to look back on the Coens’ oeuvre—and to gaze more deeply into Joel Coen’s new Macbeth, which turns out to be a surprising capstone to the Coens’ films.

Starting with Blood Simple (1984), these smartass Jewish zanies from Minnesota have been the most happily volatile presence in American movies. Steeped in film noir and with a strong taste for bloodshed, they also inherited Preston Sturges’ roguish screwball talent—but the Coens’ movies have a steel-trap sensibility and a grain of vicious fun that Sturges never possessed. Applying the sadistic acumen of a Road Runner cartoon to grown-up storylines, the Coens were merciless parodists, yet so thorough and pitch-perfect that they seemed to honor their victims, like the Hollywood communists in the underrated Hail, Caesar! or the studio fat cat Jack Lipnick in Barton Fink.

The Coens gave us a series of mocking, spit-polished parables illustrating the symbiosis of three crucial American traits, ingenuity, stupidity, and recklessness. They studied the fablelike lessons told by old Westerns for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. And they adored the hardboiled novels of James M. Cain, especially Mildred Pierce. Cain’s heroine looks to my mind exactly like Frances McDormand (Joel’s wife), whose tough yet tender small-town vibe is central to so many Coen brothers movies. (The Coens told an interviewer that the façade of Columbia’s Butler Library ought to read “Sophocles … Plato … Aristotle … James M. Cain.”)

The Coens’ movies almost always revolve around a fall guy or shlemiel. Sometimes the shlemiel triumphs in his foolishness (The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker ProxyO Brother, Where Art Thou?). Other times he ends up a survivor matured by trauma (Barton Fink). Sometimes, like Llewyn Davis or Bernie Birnbaum in Miller’s Crossing, he is a doomed sacrifice or also-ran.

To counterbalance the shlemiel, the Coens often provide a moral compass: Mike Mannix in Hail Caesar!, detective Marge in Fargo, the elderly Black timekeeper in The Hudsucker Proxy (who seems straight from the pages of Ellison’s Invisible Man), the wife in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) in No Country for Old Men.

The Coens feel most Jewish when they put together the shlemiel and the moral compass, suggesting that ignorance and wisdom are two sides of life’s coin. In A Serious Man, the Coens’ most overtly Jewish movie, hapless physics professor Larry Gopnik is both shlemiel and highly fallible moral compass.

A Serious Man, “our Jew movie,” as Joel Coen once called it, remains an exception in the Coen canon. The Coens have mostly focused on the classic American gentile fueled by bluff overconfidence. America puts foolishness into overdrive, and the results are sometimes lucky, sometimes not. A hearty idiocy drives the north country murderers of Fargo. The Coens love dumb people, spectacularly in Burn After Reading, that delectable moronic scherzo, but quietly and respectfully in The Man Who Wasn’t There, with its morose existentialist barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a dullard everyman facing the void.

The Coen brothers have at times shown us implacable, force-of-nature serial killers—Mad Man Mundt (John Goodman) in Barton Fink and Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. But for the most part, the Coens’ criminals are bunglers (Raising Arizona, Burn After Reading). Ethan once noted that “in most cases criminals belong to the strata of society least equipped to face life, and that’s why they’re caught so often.”

Enter Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s more intellectually challenged heroes. Macbeth is a lousy tyrant who can’t get anything right. No one dreads his authority, since he has none—he has only the power to kill, and when that runs out, a fierce willingness to die.

When he wrote Macbeth, Shakespeare invented the gangster movie. And gangsters, as Robert Warshow told us in a classic essay from the 1940s, subvert the American dream. Warshow wrote that “the gangster speaks for us, expressing that part of the American psyche which rejects … ’Americanness’ itself.” America promises that family values, good neighbors, and grabbing the next promotion will make us happy, but such “optimism is fundamentally satisfying to no one,” Warshow adds.

The gangster is never happy—at least not in the movies, where our myths live. High-stakes dissatisfaction fuels him. He must make his mark because either “one emerges from the crowd or else one is nothing,” Warshow writes (true in both Macbeth’s archaic Scotland and Prohibition-era Chicago). Since the gangster’s success is “simply the unlimited possibility of aggression,” with no end in sight, his frustration and death are foretold from the start. He’s trapped, a nothing despite all his firepower. “Even to himself he is a creature of the imagination,” Warshow says of the gangster, perfectly describing Macbeth, that poor player who struts and frets for his allotted time, and then is heard no more.

The Coens have always known that gangsters, nihilism, and loneliness all go together, and that these are the true dark American themes, at the heart of the hardboiled fiction and movies that explode this country’s claim to a perpetual can-do cheerfulness.

Noir skates on the thin ice that separates the ordinary man from an outlandish yet all too real possibility, murder. Like many film noir gangsters, Macbeth is a relative nobody who bursts into the big time—a nondescript thane just doing his brutal job, until the witches come to set him on fire. Then he burns with a visionary torment, and speaks some of Shakespeare’s most staggering poetry.

As Macbeth paces steadily toward Duncan’s murder, a pang of conscience stops him. He fears that

… pity, like a naked newborn babe
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid news in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.

Such galvanizing poetic lightning can be found outside Shakespeare only in Greek tragedy and the Hebrew prophets. That naked newborn babe strips us bare, too. The only way for Macbeth to recoup this decimated innocence, the wound in nature caused by Duncan’s death, is to press boldly forward to more killings, and rip out all compassion and pity. Blood will have blood.

Visually, the new Macbeth fits into the spare, beautifully bleak strain in the Coens’ work, especially The Man Who Wasn’t There, which like Macbeth is in black and white. Macbeth’s cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, gives us a world of bleary opaque whiteness, influenced by Peter Brook’s superstark King Lear but also the complex northern moods of the Danish director Carl-Theodor Dreyer. In Dreyer’s movies characters swim up to the viewer like uncanny ghosts. He holds shots a little too long so he can study how emotions emerge and dissolve in a human face. Like Dreyer’s, Coen’s camera patiently watches his actors’ faces, but Coen also dwarfs their presence with a soaring bizarre German Expressionist architecture borrowed from Fritz Lang’s Siegfried (courtesy of set designer Stefan Dechant).

Joel Coen has acknowledged Dreyer’s influence on his Macbeth, along with that of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. When Macbeth (Denzel Washington) returns home from the wars, having sent his wife (Frances McDormand) the letter telling her about the witches’ prophecy, she seems to waken from a healing trance, her face softly glowing. She resembles the Woman in Sunrise happily welcoming her beloved. The fragile health evoked by Murnau turns ill here, for this is Lady Macbeth’s first and last smile.

In their mid-60s, Washington and McDormand are the oldest Macbeths I have seen on either stage or screen. McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is no temptress, and there is no sexual heat between her and Macbeth. Their plot is not an act of passion but a somber duty to themselves—this is their last chance at the throne. Shadowing each other, at one point they touch foreheads affectionately. The mood passes quickly. Soon they will become as numb to each other as a pair of married heroin addicts. The husband and wife end up cordoned off in solitary wretchedness—the misery of killers, let’s not forget. “She should have died hereafter,” Macbeth intones when told of his wife’s suicide, as if she were never really there.

Coen’s Macbeth stays faithful to Shakespeare, with only a few cuttings and pastings. As if to prove this is not a Coen brothers movie, he doesn’t allow anything to become a freestanding tour de force—not the acrobatic contortions of the witches (Kathryn Hunter plays all three) and not the hungover Porter’s stand-up shtick (ably performed by Stephen Root).

Coen’s main innovation is to make the usually faceless Ross a pivotal figure in the story. Here is a man poised between evil and good and finally forced to choose, as if acting out Macbeth’s own early doubt—“I dare do all that may become a man,/Who dares do more is none.” Ross becomes a moral compass, as in earlier Coen movies. Alex Hassell, who plays Ross, wears a short cape resembling an angel’s or perhaps a devil’s wings, lean and sharply defined, slicing through the fog and filthy air of the story. (Mary Zophres’ costumes for the film are artful and pointed throughout.) Banquo, superbly played by Bertie Carvel, bears a more anguished ambivalence, full of foreboding. When Macbeth dandles the head of Fleance, the air is thick with mistrust—this is Banquo’s son, whom the witches have said will become king after Macbeth. Both Ross and Banquo resonate with a dilemma for all eras, including our own: how to react to the tyrant who has power over you, when resisting him would be suicidal, and staying loyal to him an offense to your soul?

Washington’s Macbeth is a man on the brink—resolute, hesitant, trapped by his own boldness. When he recites the “Is this a dagger I see before me” soliloquy, Washington chuckles softly under his breath, steeling himself. He speaks Macbeth’s words rapidly, eschewing the pointed pauses and heavy underlinings most actors embrace in this role. The point is clear: Macbeth is the servant of these words, not their master. Hamlet plays with words, but Macbeth’s words play him. So Denzel says the words swift and lowdown, like a knife to the heart.

This Macbeth is shaky, too, haunted by terror just like the nerdy Barton Fink awakening next to a bloody corpse. “How full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife,” Macbeth broods. He cannot again become the naive bloody soldier he was at the beginning of the play, not even with Lady Macbeth’s help, for she too is haunted. Lady Macbeth would like to resemble Fargo’s Marge, an utterly practical Midwestern spirit, for whom a body in a woodchipper is nothing so special. The Macbeths try to pull the same trick—a dead body is just a dead body. It doesn’t work. The dead will walk.

Washington stays subdued until he launches into reckless fury near the film’s end. Then he vaunts and pivots like a samurai who dares all. With nothing left to lose, he will never know who or what has opposed him, whether the witches were allies or enemies. He strikes out wildly at emptiness. If only there were someone to fight, rather than a hurly burly cosmos signifying nothing.

Finally there is no future, only ceaseless, sleepless tomorrows, exactly resembling the vacant present day. Each noise signals a dreadful monotony. A steady, leaden thumping punctuates Coen’s Macbeth: the thudding of boots, heavy knocking on gates, battleaxes hitting their target. There is also an old Coen brothers effect, the slow ooze of blood dripping from a dead body, tick-tock, and puddling like motor oil—a viscous, mesmerizing token of the fate that plays tricks on you.

Macbeth, his horrid deeds exposed to all, resembles those American bad hombres whose sense of nakedness before cosmic judgment is rooted in our age-old Puritan fear of God. Steve Rojack, the narrator hero of Norman Mailer’s An American Dream, says he was “buried in fear” after killing his wife, since “I no longer had the confidence my thoughts were secret to myself … a killer attracted the attention of the gods; then your mind was not your own, your anxiety ceased to be neurotic, your dread was real.”

An America where dread is real and summed up in the dispossessed mind of the outlaw—perhaps Joel Coen will return from his Shakespearean bloodbath ready to film an acid new world nightmare. After all, James M. Cain is your favorite novelist, right, Joel?

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.

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