The Scottish play’s roots run deep in the Truth. But Shakespeare was never an artist to accept the arts’ most beloved maxim: “Show, don’t tell.” He knows how to show alright — and endorses the power of showing in Hamlet when the young dane “catches the conscience of the king.” But oh, how he loves telling as well.

And Macbeth is chock-full of both showing and telling — especially in persuading us that the Scriptures are right about “the wages of sin.” Namely, sin leads to dead. But first, according to Shakespeare, before the death is dealt, the sinner gets an advance payment in madness.

Denzel Washington slides easily into compromise as an older Macbeth than we’re used to. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]
You probably already know that The Tragedy of Macbeth is the first Coen Brother movie, rather than a Brothers’ Plural movie.

That’s the most talked-about aspect of Joel Coen’s much-abridged adaptation for the big screen. (See Kenneth Turan’s “Joel Coen wouldn’t have made ‘Macbeth’ with his brother Ethan. Here’s why.“)

And it’s fact that’s certainly worth talking about! The brothers have been America’s most remarkable sibling team of filmmakers for decades, making distinctive dramas and comedies covering a wide range of genres. The Tragedy of Macbeth is far more solemn than any of the brothers’ collaborations. It’s not humorless, exactly — Shakespeare’s wit remains unparalleled in Western literature — but I didn’t hear any laughter in the theater as I watched this version of what is, for many, the high-school entry point to appreciating Shakespeare’s work. In fact — and this is unusual in my history of loving Shakespeare — I wasn’t moved much at all by this take on the material. Beyond a few gasps of admiration at the striking production design and some startling juxtapositions of images, I found myself feeling detached, as if I were browsing through a gallery of still images from a movie I haven’t yet seen.

I suspect that has something to do with the abbreviation of the play. If you’re familiar with Macbeth, I suspect you’ll feel pages being torn out as Coen — credited with both directing and writing “for the screen” — completes the narrative in less than two hours. Perhaps we need the whole thing to become fully invested in the compelling moral and spiritual quandaries at the heart of the play.

And yet, I feel every long minute of this film. Why? Perhaps it’s because it must be difficult to make so much interior monologuing visually compelling. If we’re attending live theatre, we are focused on the actors and we are using our imaginations to fill in a lot of gaps. And, indeed, long stretches of this film, while impressively shot in striking and stark compositions, are focused in close-up on great actors reciting pages and pages of text. But Coen’s minimalist approach becomes frustrating because it leaves the actors with little to work with beyond their lines and their costumes. And that makes for a curiously tense time at the cinemas. 

Brendan Gleeson is the doomed Duncan. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]
Denzel Washington, distinguished in his graying and gruffness, chews on his lines like a hound gnawing his favorite bone. He makes things sound surprising, subtle, and strange. But I just don’t find his Macbeth convincing; the man’s famous decline doesn’t seem particularly nuanced or even interesting. You can feel the hours of rehearsal put into the line delivery. But in the abbreviated span of this film, we don’t develop much of a sense of Macbeth’s resistance to his wife’s aggressive scheming, nor do we get a good sense of his vain ambitions. Like so many Coen antiheroes, he’s a dupe at the beginning who is sure to make mistakes early and often until he blinks stupidly into the advancing wave of consequences. The movie’s solemn tone chokes any possibility for wry humor — and it’s humor that usually makes the Coen brothers’ characters endearing even in their folly. Some dry humor is what I’d believed either one of the Coens could bring to Shakespeare that would make it seem fresh, new, and intriguing. (Sure, there’s a predictably manic turn from one of the Coens’ go-to madmen, the great Stephen Root, but his interlude is fleeting. And that scene is so separate from the rest of the goings-on that it feels like it could have been added after the rest of the shooting had wrapped.) Thus, we’re left with Washington being severe and sullen and not much more. We’re always aware that we’re watching the Great Actor Act. 

Frances McDormand, perfectly cast and yet making no particularly memorable moves, draws from her familiar gallery of expressions. It’s clear she knows this part well (and recently played it onstage). But I don’t sense any convincing chemistry between her and Washington. Her performance, like several of the others, feels strangely isolated — so much so that I begin to wonder how much COVID-19 social-distancing restrictions affected this production. 

Scheming her way into madness, Lady Macbeth looks down on everyone else. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]
And then there’s Kathryn Hunter, almost a lock for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, universally hailed. Well, she’s very good here at being weird, doing the best Andy-Serkis-as-Gollum impression I’ve seen since Serkis himself, and juicing the part up with contortions of body and voice. And her line readings make clear that she’s performed a lot of Shakespeare in her career.

But a great Supporting Actor is one who works well with an ensemble, not one who may well have been shot separately, acting in extremes, and then inserted periodically in moments that seem carefully calibrated to jolt the audience back to attention. She’s amazing — don’t get me wrong — but I think the performance is getting attention more for her onscreen weirdness and for the way she’s photographed than it is for the kind of subtleties and nuances of acting that suspend my disbelief.

Three Kathryn Hunters increase your chances of Oscars. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]
I realize that there will be plenty of Shakespeare devotees whose reports on this film will be different than mine because they love the material. And my favorite critic, Steven Greydanus, is raving about it at Our Sunday Visitor — so be sure to read his review for a second opinion that is assuredly more thorough and insightful than mine.

Full disclosure: I’ve always struggled to love Macbeth because the progression of this troubled leader from new responsibilities to murderous compromise to madness just seems so predetermined, so “over before it begins.” We arrive at the realization of Macbeth’s dangerous ambitions and feeble moral backbone early, and from that point on its just a matter of watching the man’s inevitable disintegration.

In the Coen catalogue, we get to journey with so many tragic characters through so much action, so much behavior. And that allows us to find ways to — and reasons to — love those characters, which makes their failings so much more poignant. Here, the characters are already frauds and failures and we just watch the cancer of their evils devour them from the inside out, which takes away, for me, the sense of tragedy in this tragedy. From what have these villains fallen? Who were they before? What are we to wish might have been?

It’s a long road to this climactic action between Macbeth and Macduff [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]
Not finding the play particularly engaging beyond the profundity of its written reflections on human nature, I just don’t think Macbeth makes a smart subject for cinematic adaptation. There is always so much wisdom to be gleaned from any encounter with Shakespeare’s text, and that proves true again here. But rare is the adaptation of a Shakespeare play for the screen that enhances the play into something purely cinematic. Here, we get Stefan Dechant’s elegant and sometimes spectacular production design captured in Bruno Delbonnel’s glorious chiaroscuro with startling juxtapositions and occasionally flamboyant flourishes of animation, and we also get another strong Carter Burwell score. But Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth did far more to suspend my disbelief and make me believe in its characters’ dilemmas. The downward spiral of Fassbender’s Macbeth into madness was riveting, and I believed in Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth completely. I wanted that film to be at least 30 minutes longer to give the cast room to explore the full text.

Despite my disappointments with Coen’s take on the material, I’d still rate it as well worth seeing in the theater, uninterrupted, and I hope many will seize this fleeting window of opportunity before it becomes a novelty in the archives of Apple TV. It’s an urgently relevant text for 2022. We live in a time when it seems like half of America’s government has decided to sell their souls for the sake of clinging to power, and some are openly calling for violence and advancing campaigns based on lies. They’re abandoning the nation’s foundational ideals and taking a wrecking ball to democracy for formal establishment of white supremacy. Watching Washington’s Macbeth collapse without a compelling fight, and without much sense of who he was before his compromise begins, reminds me of how depressing it has been to watch the nation I live in and love — the one that has celebrated being “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” the one that has boasted of “liberty and justice for all” — cast all of that aside so quickly under the influence of a narcissistic charlatan who exploits their fears and angers, and who advertises his racism, his misogyny, and his eagerness to replace democracy with fascism. I’d say it’s “tragic” — but is anything “tragic” if the fall was inevitable? Is it “tragic” if it turns out that the pledges to seek liberty and justice were just lip-service and never a country’s core conviction? Is Macbeth really a tragedy if there was no moral backbone in him to begin with?

Lady Macbeth looks up at her man who is already falling from a great height. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]
It’s interesting to consider this film in relation to David Lowery’s The Green Knight — another film in which an ambitious warrior gains the throne that he longs for… and the rest of his short life is a living nightmare. Be careful what you wish for, both films say. I believe in the truth of that. I believe that is what awaits those betraying the ideals of democracy today. Indeed, it may already be their reality. God is not mocked.

Still, I do hope the Coens will make movies as brothers again. While Shakespeare’s Macbeth may be a tribute to one of their primary inspirations, very little in this solo outing for Joel Coen feels truly inspired.