I can’t rapture over this flick without some visual aids. All images in this post are credited to Apple.~
Storytelling is the most ancient human art; acting out those stories is presumably equally old. In such terms, Shakespeare’s stories aren’t *so* old, and we certainly have older. But the kind of story that Shakespeare tells through MacBeth is a very ancient story indeed, about hubris and power and the ability of a breathtakingly badass monster wife to make her husband dance. The play is a now-historic look at even more historic tropes.
I’m not the only one who never gets tired of getting yet another look at these stories with the newest iteration of storytelling sensibilities. I mean, at this point, I’ve seen a lot of “new” takes on Shakespeare!
When I grew up, the Hot Current Take on Shakespeare was emphasizing how much of it easily transposed to modern drama. 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s the Man, and even the anachronistic Shakespeare in Love all have a very particular delighted way of playing with the tropes, for instance. The Lion King gave us Hamlet for Kids. We also got dramas transposing the entire social culture of society upon street gangs in West Side Story.
Joel Cohen, sans the Other Cohen, expressed his appreciation for this most ancient story in a fascinatingly retrocontemporary style. The Tragedy of MacBeth is as much a love letter to the golden age of cinema as it is to theater, Shakespeare’s work, and the art of acting.
Visuals are compelling and minimalist. It looks like they filmed in a Los Angeles mansion, part brutalist concrete architecture and part Spanish colonial, but research* informed me that these were all sound stages. (*My research is “Rory told me they read it in an article.)
Perhaps Coen wanted old world of Macbeth to look like somewhere that a king might live in modern California, transposed onto the fashionably bleak surfaces. It reminds me of Old Hollywood. If Gene Kelly had tap-danced into the technicolor universe of Oz, he probably would have originated from this black-and-white palace instead of Dorothy’s Kansas farmland.
We never make it to Kansas. The world always feels very small, like you’re either sitting in a black box theater or Duncan was ruling from a walled enclave in the apocalypse. A snowglobe of staring trees, biting archways, and hollow hallways that hear every single whispered monologue. It starts small and it irises tight around MacBeth until he chokes.
Rory had an interesting observation about the extremely stark cinematography in this flick: it’s a lot like the effect the cinematographer of Villeneuve’s Dune sought to get across, except mostly with sandstone faces.
We both agree that it’s taken further, and more effective, in The Tragedy of MacBeth.
Committed performances from some of our generations greatest actors are, of course, fantastic. Just listening to Denzel purr, chuckle, bark, and menace his way through the character arc is a treat. If this was just an audiobook of Denzel Reads MacBeth, I’d be basically just as happy. It’s impossible not to love MacBeth early in the play, fraternally affable, just as it’s impossible to feel bad for him once he loses. And my God does the man deserve to lose.
Any of us could be swayed by the ravenous cruelty of Frances McDormand as Lady MacBeth, and we’d deserve to take the same fall that both of these characters do–literally, in her case. It’s stunning to watch her ambition build a fragile house of daggers around her husband, who is ill-suited to wear the crown, and then watch every single knife gash this woman to the bone as her house falls apart. Some actresses were just born for the role I guess. She kills.
Though none carry the dramatic responsibility so much as these two leads, the witches portrayed by Kathryn Hunter are a deeply unsettling modern dance act, and it’s sorta crazy that Moses Ingram brought so much character to Lady MacDuff with so little time. The actor playing her kid was soooo cute and seemed to be having fun, so I couldn’t get too mad about the MacDuffs getting offed, but the performance makes it seem extra-stupid for MacDuff to leave them behind. What a MacDick. I still rooted for him against Denzel though, and that’s saying something.
Generally, I guess, my favorite part is how well this movie really does interpret Shakespeare’s dialogue-only scripts in a way that makes the intrigue so clear. Every character feels well-understood. Their roles are defined. In the hands of Joel Cohen, an ancient story I’ve struggled to parse sometimes in the past becomes clear as Game of Thrones.
And I don’t even need the characters to be in high school, sarcastic, and dressed fashionably to care about the story anymore. I think that means we (myself, the culture) are growing up.
I posit there are really two ways you should watch this movie though:
For the first time, in a normal way, paying attention, enjoying how badass the story is and how great the performances are. The spacious sound design is eerie. The beating heart-type sounds drag you into madness right with MacBeth. This is a horror movie, and it’s incredible.
And then watch it a second time muted. No sound! Just visuals.
Look at the rhythms of the set design. Just as spacious and eerie as the sounds. As beautiful as paintings.
I love this damn movie.