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‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’? Yes, and the Black Comedy Too.

Joel Coen's take on Shakespeare's doomed Scot is stark, stylish, and signifies a little less than it could.

Kathryn Hunter in 'The Tragedy of Macbeth.'
Courtesy of Apple+.

The Tragedy of Macbeth might almost work as a silent film. Faces declare their inner natures and their ultimate fates so fully without speaking they could be medieval wood carvings. Brendan Gleeson’s Duncan, the reigning king, is sated and overly trusting; as his heir, Malcolm, Harry Melling is callow and lesser. Macduff’s fire burns through Corey Hawkins’s eyes, resignation through those of Bertie Carvel’s Banquo. Alex Hassell’s sly Thane of Ross has an otherworldly air, gliding between allegiances without ever showing his hand, peculiarly robed like a tertiary Dune character. At the core, Denzel Washington is a grizzled and doomed Macbeth, while that hint of exhaustion that always loiters at the edges of Frances McDormand’s mouth creases into haggard torment as Lady Macbeth.

Don’t get me wrong: Everyone mentioned also talks the Shakespeare real good, even if visual imagery at times overtake the poetry. As Joel Coen’s first solo flight without brother Ethan in tandem, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a director’s movie. And Macbeth is, historically, a movie director’s play, having drawn the sort of big-picture fellas whose admirers don’t bother tagging with first names: Kurosawa, Welles, Polanski. No wonder, then that in Coen’s hands, Macbeth feels occasionally less a story than a series of visual challenges to be aced.

And Coen succeeds, exquisitely, not to mention cinematically. The Tragedy of Macbeth is self-conscious of its movie-ness. Though the film is shot starkly in black and white, the screen is often instead a hazy light gray from which certain objects and individuals emerge and into which they dissolve. In contrast,the castles are composed of shadows, stylized at the precise midpoint between noir and expressionism, their dark edges suggesting a void that creates a fitting claustrophobia.

The protagonists make their way between those two worlds. Washington’s sonorous mutter makes his Macbeth a tricky but brave performance. He’s less a tragic warlord a brought low by ambition than a puzzled, preoccupied soldier swept along by events. He trusts the witches’ prophecies so blindly he resents having to take any action to arrive at his fate—no wonder his wife is so frustrated with him. Without nudging the character into unseemly modernity, McDormand’s Lady Macbeth takes on a noir edge, talking her lord into regicide as coolly as some dame might sucker a chump into a murderous insurance fraud scheme.

Still, Coen is less interested in the relationship between these married plotters than with the supernatural aspects of Macbeth, and its moments of extreme blood-letting. Each slaying here is spectacular, often preceded by an unpredictable tussle: Disney could learn a thing or two about choreographing fight scenes from this. The appearance of Banquo’s ghost? Now that is how you harrow. And if you’ve heard anything about the film you’ve heard that Kathryn Hunter excels as the weird sisters, whether delving into Gollum-like self-interrogation or contorting her limbs with physiognomical impossibility.

One cost of the brilliant stylized production design, unfortunately, is to lower the stakes. Scotland seems populated by about two dozen people, most of whom are struggling to rule over a couple of weirdly lit sound stages. The Tragedy of Macbeth captures the play’s undercurrent of black comedy, but its gods-eye view of the folly of lusting for power elides a key Shakespearean element: that lust is also inextricably human. Yes, these mortals be fools, but they also be us. No director who tackles the same classica material as cinema’s greats, while granting himself a co-writing credit, should pretend to be quite so above ambition.

Special Screenings This Week

Tuesday, Dec. 21

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Alamo Drafthouse
An animated Japanese holiday classic. Through Wednesday. $10. 6:30 p.m. More info here.

Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1987)
Trylon
A country gal and a city gal strike up a friendship and survive run-ins with rude waiters, shoplifters, a duplicitous panhandler and a snooty art dealer. Rohmer at his most charming. $8. 7 & 9 p.m. More info here.

Wednesday, Dec. 21

Divine Intervention (2002)
Trylon
Worth seeing just for the shooting range scene alone. If you know, you know. $10. 7 p.m. More info here.

Thursday, Dec. 23

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
The Heights
More lies. $12. 7:30 p.m. More info here.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1988)
Parkway Theater
Aw, yeah, who doesn’t love Chevy Chase? (Besides everyone who’s ever worked with him.) $9-$12. 8 p.m. More info here

Friday, Dec. 24

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Alamo Drafthouse
It’s a Christmas movie. $10. 6:30 p.m. More info here.

Saturday, Dec. 25

Carol (2015)
Alamo Drafthouse
It’s a Christmas movie. $10. 11:30 a.m. More info here.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Trylon
A You’ve Got Mail for non-psychopaths, with Jimmy Stewart as a Hungarian. $8. 3, 5:15 & 7:30 p.m. Sunday 3 & 5:15 p.m. More info here.

Sunday, Dec. 26

The Green Ray (1986)
Trylon
Rohmer’s masterpiece about living a single life in a world full of couples, with Marie Rivière at her best. Your only shot at seeing this in a theater? Maybe. Unmissable. $8. 7:30 p.m. Monday-Tuesday 7 & 9 p.m. More info here.

Thursday, Dec. 30

Love Actually (2003)
Parkway Theater
Remember back when everyone was writing a Love Actually thinkpiece? Those were the days. Pre-show music by Daniel Nass. $9-$12. 7 p.m. More info here.

Friday, Dec. 31

Possession (1981)
Trylon
What a perfectly fucked up way to end 2021 and/or begin 2022. $8. Friday-Saturday 7 & 9:30 p.m. Sunday 3 & 5:30 p.m. More info here.

Saturday, Jan. 1
Cinderella (live)
AMC Rosedale 14/AMC Southdale 16/Showplace ICON
The Met’s English-language adaptation of Massenet’s Cendrillon. $25. 11:55 a.m. Wednesday 1 & 6:15 p.m. More info here.

Holiday Inn (1942)
The Heights
An Irving Berlin songfest, with all your favorite holiday hits. $12. 1 & 4:15 p.m. More info here.

Sunday, Jan. 2

Metropolis (1927)
Parkway Theater
Start the year off right with Fritz Lang’s still-dazzling sci-fi classic, with a special live soundtrack from Al Church and friends. $10-$15. 7:30 p.m. More info here.

Don’t Look Now (1973)
Trylon
Here’s your chance to watch one of the most awkwardly realistic sex scenes in film history in a room full of strangers. $8. 8 p.m. Monday-Tuesday 7 & 9:15 p.m. More info here.

Wednesday, Jan. 5

January Tape Freaks: People Not Magic
Trylon
This month’s theme: indigenous people battling dark magic. $5. 7 p.m. More info here.

Thursday, Jan. 6

Slap Shot (1977)
Parkway Theater
Paul Newman! Bloodthirsty hockey! Start 2022 off right. 8 p.m. $9-$12. More info here.

Opening This Week

A Journal for Jordan
Denzel Washington directs. Michael B. Jordan stars. 

The King’s Man
There are FOUR of these movies now? How can that possibly be?

Licorice Pizza
Still sounds better than Parkway Pizza.

The Matrix Resurrections
Welcome back, The Matrix!

Red Rocket
Writer-director Sean Baker (The Florida Project, Tangerine) asks the question “Can a porn star (Simon Rex) go home again?

Sing 2
Animated koalas or some shit.

Ongoing in Local Theaters

Being the Ricardos (read our review here)
Encanto
The French Dispatch (read our review here)
Ghostbusters: Afterlife (read our review here)
The Hand of God
House of Gucci (read our review here)
National Champions
Nightmare Alley (read our review here)
Spider-Man: All the Spider-Mans
West Side Story (read our review here)