Friday night we finally got to see Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. I bought my tickets since the Film Society of Lincoln Center went out of their way to make my life difficult. Turns out, it was the best money I could have spent.
Apple and A24 are releasing “Macbeth” at Christmas. They’ve got their Oscar movie here, with startling performances from everyone starting with Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand a huge supporting cast of knockout actors. Chief among them is Kathryn Hunter, a theater actress who stole the show in Julie Taymor’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” a few years ago in Brooklyn. But there’s also Corey Hawkins, Alex Hassel, Stephen Root, Brendan Gleason, Moses Ingram, Bertie Carvel, Jefferson Mays, Brian Thompson, and so many more. This movie is cast like a spectacular flower arrangement, very exactly with specific purposes.
It’s also shot that way. Coen, working without brother Ethan this time, wrote and directed, used Bruno Delbonnel for cinematography and Stefan Dechant for production design. Coen edited the movie himself under the name Reginald Jaynes, a new pseudonym (Reginald’s fictitious brother Roderick edited all the other Coen brothers movies) with Lucian Johnston. They’re all getting Oscar nominations.
This “Macbeth” is shot in a gorgeous black and white that would make Woody Allen jealous. It’s like what we used to call in the magazine business “four color black and white” similar to what the Coens used for “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” It’s also shot in an old fashioned ratio, so the frame is square,not rectangular. The last contemporary movie I remember like this was “The Artist.”
What Coen has achieved is magnificent and monumental, not words to be thrown around. He’s exceeded his best past work and then some. This production is almost hybrid theater-cinema, using the best techniques of each. They’re literally going to have make a mini documentary about how Coen et al conceived these sets, the lighting, the noir-ish look of Scottish moors created on a soundstage. Some of the sets had the moody feel of the Metropolitan Opera sets for the Ring cycle. Some of them had nods to Julie Taymor. But knitted together they form their own unique universe.
So McDormand is Lady Macbeth (a leading role, Fran, not supporting), Denzel is Macbeth, they are calmly scary and duplicitous political plotters who kill King Duncan (Gleason) and basically go mad as they overreach for power. Denzel is understated and keenly a royal wannabe before he loses his mind. It’s a very unusual performance for him and one his most powerful. McDormand is always letter perfect. Her Lady Macbeth has one scene I really loved where her eyes are closed, she’s waking up to realize she’s achieved her goal. It’s delicious. Hunter plays the three witches in a turn that is frightening and mesmerizing.
I was a little skeptical going in tonight because “Macbeth” already had a 100 on Rotten Tomatoes. Does it have faults? I’m sure in time we’ll find some. But Joel Coen and company are working at a higher level than almost anything else this year or last or recent times. This isn’t a blockbuster. It will need the help of Apple TV. This “Macbeth” is a piece of art.
We’re going to be talking this movie a lot come the late fall. But for now, we all have something to look forward to.