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'The Tragedy of Macbeth' is a focused and chilling adaptation

Kathryn Hunter as one of the witches (actually, all of the witches) in 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'
courtesy Apple TV+
Kathryn Hunter as one of the witches (actually, all of the witches) in 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'

Joel Coen is a guy who once released a director’s cut of his first movie, Blood Simple, that was actually shorter than the original cut, so we know he knows how to pare something down to its leanest and meanest parts. He made that movie, and everything else he’s done for the last 36 years, with his brother, Ethan—at least, until now, as he’s gone it alone in adapting Shakespeare for his latest film, The Tragedy of Macbeth.

I don’t have enough of a relationship with Macbeth to make pronouncements on the changes Coen has made for the film, except to say that they work for his purposes, and strip down the play into a focused and chilling tale of ambition and madness. While so many filmmakers seem to hunt around for a way to make Shakespeare fresh and modern, Coen reminds us of what can be so magnificent about the plays themselves. And, more than that, he reminds us of what can be so magnificent about the movies.

Denzel Washington plays Macbeth, with Frances McDormand as his plotting wife. And while the acting is uniformly excellent, Washington, in particular, shows us yet again what a titan of the screen he is, jutting his jaw and staring daggers as he seesaws between those tiny gestures and enormous outbursts while sliding down the slope into murderous megalomania and insanity.

But there’s no question that what we see on the screen is the triumph of Coen’s adaptation. The surreal design of the sets calls to mind the Expressionism of the 1920s and ‘30s, with its steep angles and dreamlike doorways, and we feel at once on the stage of a theatre and in another world entirely. The high-contrast black-and-white photography from Bruno Delbonnel creates shadows that are so sharp they can almost cut you, and a single white hair in a man’s black beard leaps off the screen. It’s all a glorious reminder of the thrill movies can create, how they can inject life through real artistry, and how they can tell a story we already know in a way no other art form can approach.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is in theaters now and on Apple TV+ January 14th.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.