The first question to ask of any film adaptation of a centuries-old play is, Why? Why again? Why now? The opening of Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth made me doubt that the answer was anything more than, Just because. A24’s runaway successes might now make it a place for big-name directors to vent all the kookiness that mainstream production companies won’t tolerate. The first scene of The Tragedy, with Kathryn Hunter croaking and literally contorting her body as all three Weird Sisters, seems like precisely that kind of just-because weirdness. It soon becomes apparent, however, that The Tragedy of Macbeth strikes a unique and disturbing chord. The film presents a beautifully bleak vision of doomed political ambition which ultimately shows that, even when fascists are incompetent, their ruthlessness creates irredeemable suffering.
Coen’s knack for darkly comical irony brings new life to Shakespeare’s tale of short-lived insurrection. Tight shots, fog-filled landscapes, and the claustrophobic, flat sets make the film’s world narrow, tiny, almost two-dimensional. The kingdom for which Denzel Washington’s Macbeth sells his soul is a void, bare of compensation. Washington, silver hair prominent in the film’s gray scale, is perfectly cast as an aging powerhouse drained of power. He rasps through the play’s most famous soliloquy, exhausted as he apprehends the futility of all his crimes and of life itself: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Even when the villain is vanquished, The Tragedy ends with a world irrevocably broken, proving its title does not merely concern the protagonist. Though you can still play a little bit of A24 bingo with this film (unnecessary title cards, check; Ralph Ineson appearance, check), The Tragedy of Macbeth more than earns its existence. See it not to feel better about the world but to understand its horrors, its art, and its absurdity. R, 105 min.