Macbeth's Tragic Review: Joel Coin Turns Voice and Anger into Medieval Noir

Denzel Washington in a still from Macbeth’s tragedy.

Denzel Washington in a still from Macbeth’s tragedy.

Macbeth’s tragedy | Director: Joel Coin

Cast: Denzel Washington, Francis McDormand, Bertie Carwell, Alex Hazel, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Brendan Gleeson

Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes | Language: English | Rating: 3

The works of Shakespeare and the Coyne Brothers may seem like worlds separated by the media. But their two worlds are not defined by very different moral order. Judgment and vengeance are upon the wicked. Innocents often suffer because of the failures of the innocent. They are all ruled by the same moving forces of fate and coincidence. Cohen’s tragedies and jokes are full of foolish strategists, whose passions force them to make moral compromises one after another. Jerry Lundeguard of Fargo digs himself into a deep pit as he tries to get out of it. The first feature, Blood Simple, does not clean blood stains.

As a writer / director / producer, Joel Coyne goes solo without his brother Ethan on his first film, The Tragedy of Macbeth. Macbeth, like any other play, is eloquent. Translating into a visual medium is a challenge that scares even the most talented filmmakers. Midnight bells maintain a gold standard in that regard. Orson Welles prepared patchwork of scenes from five different plays in his interrogation portrait Fallstaff. The board’s words remained the same, and instead he rearranged the cinematic medium to fit the stage syntax. (Side note: It’s hard to deny Fallstaff’s Big Dude Energy.

Coyne’s adaptation of Scottish drama succeeds in aesthetics: in how the visuals of the film convey the tensions that underlie the text. In turning it into a black and white mood piece, he has the potential to impoverish Shakespeare’s world of poetic richness. The verses become mere ornaments, giving some color to its complete atmosphere. Monochrome formalizes the depiction of Scotland where all hope has dried up.

Shakespeare’s magical liquor of uncontrolled desire, guilt and dictatorship takes a new visual direction. The psychological underpinnings of the play lend themselves to the lower sensibilities of the film. Coin gives us a glimpse into the dark recesses of a crazy mind. The characters are set against a well-ventilated open space that still feels oppressive. A sense of geometry matches their inner psychology: their desires, hybrids, fears. Lighting casts shadows like a knife. Instead of circular contours, sharp angles to the castle’s arched doors, columns and stairs draw the viewer into the headlines. Dark edges and corners are kept secret and plans are planned.

The desire to motivate people to do evil is a theme that is repeated throughout the Coyote brothers’ films. Macbeth’s royal ambitions lay dormant until he was awakened by the legal instruction of the witches. Coins are read between Shakespeare’s blocked lines. The sense of loss is exacerbated in the lives of childless couples. Justin Cursell’s 2015 adoption did the same, even to recreate the couple as parents who were not motivated by desire rather than grief. The film begins with the funeral of their child. In The Tragedy of Macbeth the couple are made adults, and Coin hints that their age was a factor in their conspiracy. The fact that they can not create an heir who can secure their inheritance explains why they are playing a game for the crown and sending someone who can claim it in the future.

“Fair is foul, foul is fair. Walk through the fog and polluted air,” the witch begins her prophecy. Composing all three of them, Catherine Hunter transforms her entire form into a raven. Thane of Cowdor is played by Denzel Washington. As he enters his songs, the severity of age sharpens their mark. As Macbeth walks down the hallway to King Duncan’s (Brendan Gleeson)’s bedroom, Washington shows a man intoxicated with the promise of becoming king, and hunts for the meaning of going through murder. The corridor feels endless, and Macbeth’s decision extends as he gives Washington time to finish his solitary conversation. The alternating pattern of light and shadow that he passes through indicates his uncertainty. When he imagines the handle of the door as a dagger in his hand, it seems that fate itself compels him to do that deed. The scene conveys a self-awareness that is literally deeply marked – as if Macbeth knew what was happening before and after. Knowing the murder he was about to commit would lead to emptiness and eventually the fall would nullify his work, but it seems that he could not deviate from the path that fate had prepared for him and cursed him.

The aesthetics of the film offer a powerful tool for delving into the moral choices that Macbeth and his wife face. A thick fog engulfs another landscape of the film, heightening the sense of mystery and horror. The drone cello and the beating bass elevate the illusion. Duncan’s blood flows to the tempo of the drum beat as a hunting reminder. No amount of wealth or power can erase the memory of murder. An internal battle ensues as Macbeth is surrounded by paranoia and paranoia. His wife suffers as well. Frances McDormand charts Lady Macbeth’s inner journey, and the guilt of Duncan’s murder – whose murders to cover it up – begins to overwhelm her. Both suffer from isolation and find it difficult to bear the guilt. “Outside, damn place!” It was a shocking moment in the play. It requires a dive into a woman’s nightmare head. Coin is very loyal to the source material and reduces stress here. Lady Macbeth sleeps in a trance through the castle, and the scene is set from the perspective of a standing doctor and lady-in-waiting. Under Cohen’s system, McDormand does not shed new light on the depths of a very bad character.

Where Shakespeare’s story and Coyne’s remake are in moments like the Porter scene. Stephen Root is the hang-over gate-keeper to Macbeth’s castle. Still drunk from last night’s celebrations, cursing the man who knocks on the door to hell, he knocks on the door and jokes to ease the trial of having to get out of bed too early. Macbeth manages to overthrow two incompetent criminals, Banco, just like the ancestors of the fools who live in the coin-sentence. As Roman Polanski did in his 1971 adaptation, Cohen portrays Thane Rose (Alex Hazel) as the third murderer. His inspirations remain a mystery, as Rose transforms the roles of angel and devil into those who listen to him.

If The Tragedy of Macbeth re-arranges the play in any way, that is what the viewer reads into it. When Duncan’s son Malcolm (Harry Melling) is crowned, there is still a heavy fog of suspicion in the air. Has justice been restored and peace restored with the ouster of a dictator? Or has it been replaced with a new one? The story can be contextualized, reproduced and refined. But because the board’s words still have unparalleled power, Coin literally airlifts monologues. From insanity to defeat, Washington leaps into “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” because Macbeth denies what it was. When his wife dies, he thinks about the futility of his assassination attempt. “Life is just a shadow, a poor player who spends his hours on stage and is disturbed and then hears it,” he says. As he preaches dude-ism in The Big Lebovsky, we are reminded of Sam Elliott’s last words (said by a fool, full of voice and anger, nothing to suggest), asking us to take comfort in the meaninglessness of life.

Macbeth’s tragedy is now streaming on Apple TV +.

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