In the 18 feature films he has made with his brother Ethan, Joel Coen has proved himself, over and over again, to be as fetishistically visual a director as anyone from the independent film world of the last four decades. Wes Anderson might be a more extreme example, but even there it would be hard to imagine the Wes Anderson life-as-a-dollhouse school had it not been for the example of the Coen brothers: the obsession they’ve always had with rendering a story in meticulously organized images, with each shot framed just so, the sets designed almost like dioramas, the whole sense of camera placement and cutting and spatial dynamics creating a heightened graphic-novel approach that, for the Coens, often seems to be the main reason they’re making the movie. (The loony-tunes tale of “Barton Fink” evaporated from my mind a month after I’d seen it, but I can still remember what the movie looks like.)
So it’s no surprise that in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” an adaptation of the Shakespeare play that is Joel Coen’s first solo outing as a filmmaker (it will open the New York Film Festival tonight), Coen very much approaches the material as the visual obsessive he is. The diaphanous white fog, the cawing black birds, the witch who looks like a depraved Joan of Arc — it all has the entranced clarity of a nightmare. The surprise, at least to me (and I say this as a true believer in the Coen brothers’ aesthetic, even though I only like about half their films), is how sensual and ingenious and expressive and enveloping the film’s images are.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” was shot in black-and-white in 1.19:1, the end-of-the-silent-era aspect ratio that gives you a frame that’s a nearly perfect square. And just as that shape evokes an older world of moviemaking, Coen’s images, created in collaboration with the cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and the production designer Stefan Dechant, make you feel like you’re tripping — and I mean tripping — though some of the most succulent chapters of film history. You may think, “Okay, so what?” Even music-video hacks know how to rip iconic screen images out of context and toss them into the postmodern blender. But in “Macbeth,” Coen doesn’t just echo the look of old films. He echoes the atmosphere, the spirit beneath the look — the chiaroscuro psychology, with shadows dancing around castle sets that are like something out of a fairy tale, and looming, sealed-in spaces where a shaft of light can reflect a character’s state of being.
At different points, the look of “The Tragedy of Macbeth” will recall a silky foreboding film noir, a Val Lewton horror film, a Sirkian soap opera, the cloistered dreamscapes of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Ordet,” the fascist hellscape of Orson Welles’ “The Trial,” the hallowed glow of “The Chronicle of Anna Magdalene Bach,” the operatic catacombs of “Ivan the Terrible,” and Welles’ 1948 version of “Macbeth.” In their austere chessboard way, the images are beautiful — suitable for framing — but if the film were just a glorified coffee-table-book version of Shakespeare, there would be little reason to care. Coen uses the images to create a heightened cinematic feeling: the sensation of a “closed” movie universe — a film space that turns into a labyrinth of the mind, as well as a moral-emotional playground for the audience. In this case, a playground splashed with blood.
The sense that this “Macbeth” is taking place in covered spaces even when it’s set outside links it to the studio-system era; it also plants it in a hybrid realm right on the border between film and theater. The movie was shot on soundstages, which lends it a certain hermetic quality, but I found that a fascinating fit with Shakespeare, whose artifice tends to stand out too much to me in a natural setting. And the hypnotic stylization of Coen’s images allows him to stage the play with an intimacy that coaxes out its humanity.
You can, if you choose, view the character of Macbeth as a man whose ambition turns him into a monster, but Denzel Washington, with close-cropped silver-flecked hair that seems to merge with the film’s design, plays him as an outwardly gregarious corporate weasel, all too relatable in a slightly crestfallen middle-aged way. Washington, as an actor, has always been a bit of a declaimer; he hardly needs Shakespeare to show that side of himself. In “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” though, he dials himself down, finding a softer, more furtive spirit in the inner worm of Macbeth’s malevolence. This is a movie in which two characters, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), attempt to turn themselves into sociopaths, and part of the tragedy is that they fail.
When the witches, led by the scary performance of Kathryn Hunter, prophesize that Macbeth, returning in triumph from the war against Norway and Ireland, will become the Thane of Cawdor, and he does, it plants a seed in him: Surely their other prophecy — that he’ll be king — will now come true as well. Meeting Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), the King of Scotland, in a tent, we see the first hint of covetousness in Macbeth; it’s there in Washington’s pained smile when Duncan announces that his son, Malcolm (Harry Melling), will be the next king. But Washington, who has mastered the all-too-rare art of delivering Shakespeare as if it were conversational speech, keeps Macbeth’s desires under heavy wraps. It’s Lady Macbeth, having made a kind of pact with the devil, who nudges him to murder — and when he walks along an endless corridor, speaking of the dagger he sees before him, the scene has a sense of vertigo. When his dagger rips into Duncan’s neck, we feel him going through the looking glass.
Washington’s Macbeth isn’t a good sociopath; he flails and tries too hard. His murder of the two guards who’ve been set up to look like Duncan’s killers is an act of rash anxiety. Staring up at him in silent recrimination from below, McDormand’s Lady Macbeth can’t believe what a mistake it is. It’s not hard to see why Banquo’s ghost comes to visit Macbeth in the middle of a dinner: Bertie Carvel imbues Banquo with a camaraderie that’s warm and true, making his killing a grotesque act. That ghost is Macbeth’s guilt. Even here, Washington gives Macbeth a quality of vulnerability as he grows more desperate in covering his tracks. It’s frightening how familiar his loss of perspective looks. In too deep, he’s ruled by an obsession that is evil, but we never lose sight of the person who’s been taken over. Since Washington and McDormand are both in their mid-60s, their scheming has a jaded urgency. This is literally their last stab at power.
There is fine acting throughout, notably from Corey Hawkins as Macduff, who summons the greatest outrage at Macbeth’s treachery, and McDormand, whose sleepwalking speech represents the recovery of her humanity: She knows she can’t wash away the blood that’s been spilled. Coen has trimmed down this already trim (at least for Shakespeare) play, and that was a smart move. He has made a “Macbeth” that is sure to seduce audiences — one that, for all its darkness of import, is light-spirited, fleet, and intoxicating. It shows you, through the ironic empathy summoned by Washington’s performance, just how fast the human race can slip off the tracks. And it brings that drama into ravishing deep focus.