Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth opens with contrasting shots of the sky and the earth, with a disorienting blend of both in the very first shot. We seem to be looking up at three corvids circling ominously amid impenetrable haze — but then the clouds part and a tiny figure appears, revealing that the camera is looking down from above. This is normally called a “God shot,” but the birds look down with anything but divine eyes: They represent the play’s three witches, and embody the opening lines heard in voiceover: “Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
In the sand below are a trail of footprints streaked with splatters of what turns out to be blood. These two images roughly establish the parameters of Macbeth’s story. Though the disc of the sun does sometimes pierce the overcast skies, the stars are seen and remarked upon, and the powers of both heaven and hell are referenced throughout, what we see of Macbeth’s life plays out in a cramped, shallow space of earthly ambition and bloody deeds overshadowed by dark oracles beckoning Denzel Washington’s Macbeth to his doom.
Macbeth may be one of Shakespeare’s most theologically explicit plays, but it’s a tale of sin and corruption in which God seems so emphatically remote that even when Macbeth tries to pray, he can’t — which is another way of saying it’s ideally suited to the Coen sensibility.
Working for the first time without his brother Ethan, with material proposed to him by his wife and frequent collaborator Frances McDormand — who played Lady Macbeth on stage five years ago at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and reprises the role here — the elder Coen brother approaches this oft-filmed material in a thrilling spirit of discovery rather than subversive reworking or reimagining.
To a greater degree even than their 2010 adaptation of Charles Portis’ True Grit, The Tragedy of Macbeth is dominated by the language and structure of the source material, though filtered through a Coenesque visual and aural sensibility leaning into the bizarre, the surreal, the grotesque.
Somehow, though she appears in the role in only two scenes, the astonishing Kathryn Hunter, with her croaking voice and shape-changing contortionist physicality, incarnates the Coen aesthetic as all three of the Weird Sisters, so much so that I cannot imagine her in anyone else’s Macbeth, nor imagine Joel Coen’s Macbeth without her. (The former is clearly my own lack of imagination; she has played Puck and even King Lear onstage, and could doubtless be anybody’s Weird Sisters. Even so, if she played the opening the way she does here, I would still want a Coen movie to follow.)
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