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Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth: The Bard Distilled

A24’s The Tragedy of Macbeth begins with narration over a blank screen. William Shakespeare’s familiar verse immediately establishes the bleak tone of the tragedy to follow:

When shall we three meet again— In thunder, lightning, or in rain? When the hurly-burly's done, When the battle's lost, and won. Where the place? Upon the heath. There to meet with Macbeth. Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Do not, however, expect the rest of Joel Coen’s film to remain so slavishly devoted to the original text—indeed, clocking in at a brisk 105 minutes, it may very well be the leanest interpretation of the play to date. But despite its numerous cuts, it never feels incomplete; rather, these minor omissions merely serve to further reinforce, illuminate, and enrich the source material’s core themes.

Unlike other directors that have adapted The Bard’s work for the silver screen—Kenneth Branagh, Franco Zeffirelli, and Baz Luhrmann, for instance—Coen prioritizes intimacy over spectacle. He forgoes the obligatory elaborate costumes, intricately designed sets, and epic battle sequences featuring thousands of extras, instead adopting a deliberately minimalistic visual style—stark black-and-white photography, a claustrophobic 1:37:1 aspect ratio, sparsely furnished sound stages—that elegantly reflects the story’s theatrical roots.

Which isn’t to imply that the movie lacks cinematic flair; on the contrary, the imagery—replete with billowing mist, light melting into inky shadow, and hauntingly asymmetrical silhouettes—frequently evokes German Expressionism, Ingmar Bergman (especially The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring), and Universal’s classic monster flicks. Coen even borrows from himself on occasion; the scene in which Macbeth assassinates King Duncan, for example, wouldn’t look out of place in Blood Simple or No Country for Old Men.

Of course, Coen’s contributions to the narrative amount to far more than just aesthetics; he also elaborates upon the the plot and mythology in delightfully surprising ways (Fleance, in particular, benefits from an expanded role). In his version of the tale, the Weird Sisters (all three of whom are here portrayed by an unnervingly gravel-voiced Kathryn Hunter) weave a convoluted tapestry of fate, and Macbeth is hardly the only character ensnared in their insidious web. History, as the infamous “They” once said, is written in blood—and although our tormented protagonist’s ill-gotten crown ultimately ends up in Malcolm’s possession, The Tragedy of Macbeth’s chilling final frames make it abundantly clear that the cycle of senseless, fruitless, meaningless violence will never truly end.

Even without his brother’s involvement, Joel excels at making nihilism hurt so damn good!

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