Joel Coen’s Monochromatic Re-Imagining of The Tragedy of Macbeth
“Man that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.”
- Job 14, King James Version of The Bible, 1611.
“… neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
- Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach, 1867.
To say there was high drama at this year's Academy Awards is an understatement.
Having slapped Chris Rock in the face, yelled “leave my fucking wife out of it” (twice), and refused to leave the ceremony, Will Smith went on to win Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in the Shakespearean-titled King Richard. Contrite and weeping, he subsequently apologised and resigned from the Academy, but whether his career will recover as quickly as Rock managed to regain his composure remains to be seen.
Immediately after Smith's impromptu outburst, Denzel Washington tried to pacify him with the equally Shakespearean advice "At your highest moment be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you." The Bard of Avon may well be smirking up the sleeves of his lace doublet at the irony, but now that the initial furore has dissipated, it is worth revisiting the movie for which Denzel Washington was also nominated.
Joel Coen has fearlessly following in the footstep of three of the world’s greatest film-makers who previously tackled Macbeth. Orson Welles produced a black-and-white version in 1948, released just as the House un-American Activities Committee was ramping up its persecution of supposed communist subversion in Hollywood. In many ways, it is a sequel to his 1937 antifascist version of Julius Caesar, which he subtitled “The Death of A Dictator.” E. Pearlman, in his survey Macbeth on Film: Politics, noted that “Shakespeare’s poles of monarchy and tyranny have been replaced by a right-wing worldview which can admit nothing other than dictatorship or disorder.”
Ten years later, when Japan was still occupied by American soldiers, Akira Kurosawa mapped out much the same territory in Throne of Blood. Set in the violent medieval Sengoku period when armed and dangerous samurai roamed the country at will, it was also shot in grainy monochrome and explored the corrosive effects of untrammelled militarism in the service of imperial ambition.
While both of these earlier versions were clearly shaped by the events of the 1930s and 40s, Roman Polanski’s ensanguined Technicolor version was released in 1971, a year after demented cult leader and ex-con Charles Manson’s deranged followers had mistakenly butchered his wife Sharon Tate and their friends at the Beverly Canyon house they were renting.
Following the direct instructions of Manson, who intended to spark an apocalyptic race war he termed “Helter Skelter,” four of his acolytes broke into the property and viciously murdered high school graduate Steven Parent, celebrity stylist Jay Sebring, screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski, Folgers coffee heiress Abigail Folger, and Tate, who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time. Manson had previously scoped out the property at 10050 Cielo Drive when it was occupied by Candice Bergen and Doris Day’s son, the record producer Terry Melcher. Unknown to Manson, whose demo tapes Melcher had rejected, the couple split up in early 1969 and Melcher moved to Malibu.
During the gruesome death scene of Lady MacDuff's children, Polanski instructed a four-year-old girl on how to play dead while smearing fake blood all over her body. When he asked the girl for her name, she eerily replied "Sharon." Polanski later acknowledged that the movie’s gruesome bloodletting was also influenced by scenes he had personally witnessed growing up in the Krakow ghetto, specifically his memory of SS officers ransacking his house as a child. When his co-screenwriter, the kinky British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan suggested he may have overdone the gore a bit, Polanski replied, “You didn’t see my house last summer. I know about bleeding.”
Polanski made Francesca Annis deliver her sleepwalking scene naked, erroneously claiming that no one wore pajamas in those days and earning the movie an X rating that crippled it at the box office. It was the first Playboy Production for the cinema, after Victor Lownes, the head of Playboy's European operation, personally persuaded pornographer Hugh Hefner to underwrite the $1.5m budget, thinking it would bring a degree of respectability to their company. Lownes was so infuriated when Polanski overshot the budget up by an additional $600,000 that the two previously inseparable pals fell out for many years. Final losses were estimated at $3.5 million.
Both Kurosawa and Polanski deliberately situated their movies in a medieval period and location. Kurosawa constructed his castle exteriors at great cost and labour in the fog-bound and stunted landscape of Mt Fiji, while Polanski insisted on filming for four gruelling weeks in Snowdonia National Park using only available natural light. A camera operator nearly died on the first day of shooting when a fierce wind blew him into a crevice.
Undeterred, Polanski remained determined to include a bear-baiting sequence, but the first animal they used was too timid and kept running away from the dogs, while the second was uncontrollable and raked a member of the crew with its claws. Polanski then opted to employ a stuntman in a bear suit, who feared his padding would not be sufficiently protective and insisted that only one dog be set loose. Polanski nonetheless instructed the handlers to release three dogs, causing the stuntman to cower in terror and scream at him to call them off.
In contrast, Joel Coen was uninterested in recreating a realistic, sheep-shitten Highland landscape, opting instead to shoot his version entirely on a Hollywood soundstage in order to instil a sense of suffocating claustrophobia. There is not a single exterior shot (save for an element of the final shot in the film) and the outside of the castle is never shown.
Instead, production designer Stefan Dechant created highly stylised sets and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel employed stark lighting and distorted perspectives indebted to German Expressionism and Hollywood film noir of the 1940s. According to Delbonnel, who painted shadows directly onto the sets to provide an otherworldly look entirely "untethered from reality,” almost all of the costumes and sets were black-and-white, except for a couple of dresses worn by McDormand. He shot the whole film in a nearly square aperture format similar to the Academy aspect ratio favoured by Welles and Kurosawa, with varying degrees of grayscale and a complex tonal patterning that veers from complete blackouts to blinding whites, mirroring the complex shades of meaning in Shakespeare’s text.
In an interview for The Wrap, Dechant pointed out that Coen never wanted the audience to lose track of the fact that Shakespeare's play was essentially a theatrical experience - “We were using Shakespeare’s text to understand the psychology of what was going on and, at the same time, abstract the environment … We also talked about the line in the play, “I have not seen a day so fair and foul.” The days and night are not much different in this world, they would kind of bleed into each other. That led us to think about the film’s the point of view. Like when you see ravens in the sky in the opening shot, you’re not sure if you’re looking up or down at them … Joel wanted the audience to be confused about what point of view they had. That’s part of the play … It’s a murky environment and we wanted the imagery to remain pretty clouded.”
There are also several vertiginous shots of staircases within the castle in which it is unclear whether they are running up or down, like an MC Escher print. Dechant said, “One of the artists we looked at was a turn of the century set designer named Edward Gordon Craig. He made very abstract stage settings, with cubes and long folding horizontal screens. One of his designs is actually called ‘The Steps.’ We looked at a lot of his sketches [as well as] photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto. One of them is called La Casa Barragan and it just shows two walls intersecting and a square tower behind it, slightly out of focus and in black-and-white. That became one of our touchstone images.”
Although both Welles and Kurosawa had shown trees moving through the fog, Coen felt that the depiction of Birnam Wood on the move had never been captured successfully on film. When Macbeth flings the enormous castle windows open, a whirlwind blasts an avalanche of black leaves into the room, a uniquely cinematic way of fulfilling one of the witches’ most enigmatic prophecies.
The words ‘knock’ and ‘knocking’ occur nineteen times in Shakespeare's text and Craig Burkey’s sound design employs the insistent rapping on doors to greatest effect after MacBeth puts a finger to his lips as Duncan awakes and slides a stiletto into his jugular. Thomas de Quincey considered the recurrence of this motif at such a pivotal moment as indicating “the human flesh has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that has suspended them.”
Coen required his actors to read different roles for each read-through and the company rehearsed for an unusual three and half weeks, so they knew not only their own roles, but the entire play backwards. While Tynan supported Polanski's decision to cast actors who were in their twenties in the lead roles n(claiming that you can’t “have Macbeth and Lady Macbeth performed by sixty year-olds - it’s too late for them to be ambitious”), Coen clearly disagreed. He selected a superbly qualified cast with extensive theatrical training from “the Yale and Juilliard mafia,” as Washington described it.
Washington and McDormand (who had been playing Lady Macbeth since high school) are both in their sixties, yet their “vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls on th' other” remains undiminished. When Washington’s swarthy King looks directly at McDormand and asks “Who could refrain, That had a heart to love, and in that heart Courage to make love’s known?”, she gives him first a questioning, then a devastating look that suggests, “We agreed on a plan and now you’re going off-script. Get a grip!”.
It is no accident that Coen extended his black-and-white template to encompass the casting, with Washington and McDormand providing another opposing polarity in an unsettling period when the murder of George Floyd had recently sparked rioting and nationwide protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. He also cast black actors Corey Hawkins and Moses Ingram as the Macduffs, telling an audience at the NY Film Festival premiere that not only “is there diversity in the casting, but there’s also diversity in the dialect,” with Irish brogues mixing freely among a wide range of British and American accents. Such colour-blind casting adds extra significance to the moment when Macbeth, frustrated at being passed over by Duncan, mutters to himself, “Let not light see my black and deep desires.”
While Welles and Polanski opted to employ voice-over soliloquies, Coen’s actors recite them aloud, usually while in motion. McDormand reads her husband's letter, in which he shares the witches’ prophecy that he shall be king, while pacing down a long corridor. The rapid tracking shot is repeated when Washington asks “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” as he strides grimly and purposefully towards Duncan’s bedroom. Speeches that in the stage play are part of group scenes assume the quality of soliloquies spoken directly to the camera, inviting the audience to focus on the words and the speaker’s degree of sincerity. Coen is also attentive to subtly revealing gestures, such as McDormand pulling out a tuft of hair that comes away in her hand, revealing with a single image both the mental and physical stress under which she is operating.
Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro (many of whose ingenious insights are abridged in this review) observed astutely that, “What Coen and his stars manage so deftly here is locating an otherwise undefined moment in the play when the Macbeths, until now of one mind, begin their inexorable drift apart. As the cocreator of Blood Simple well knows, plans go awry and relationships unravel once blood is spilled.” Even MacDormand, however, cannot match the thrill I experienced as a teenager seeing the young Helen Mirren live on stage deliver the lines “Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here” while clutching her crotch.
The depiction of the witches have always proved a directorial challenge in terms of making them appear genuinely maleficent without verging on the ridiculous. The supernatural elements must be credible if Macbeth is to be accepted as a true Aristotelian tragedy, but it is hard to make them believable when its main narrative is attributed to human agency. They dominated Welles’ film from beginning to end, while Polanski played their role down, acknowledging their demonic aspect, but firmly locating the source of the tragedy in human arrogance before the inevitable fall.
Coen cannily casts the extraordinary Kathryn Hunter as all three witches. In the opening scene, she contorts herself into the shape of a blackbird, cackling away like the omnipresent crows and ravens who are clearly her familiars. Coen is more interested in how humans are responsible for their own fates and implies that the supernatural elements or the play, from the dagger that haunts Macbeth to his visions of Banquo’s ghost, are either the projection of a perfervid imagination or the result of drug-induced hallucinations.
Hunter, who was cast as the Fool in a 2010 RSC production of King Lear, also plays the bearded Old Man in a manner that evokes Lear on his blasted heath. The audience is left to wonder whether this another shape-changing transfiguration or if she is simply doubling the part. After Duncan’s murder, Ross visits the Old Man’s hut where Hunter delivers lines that underscore life’s pain and tribulation are taken from the Fool’s ditty in King Lear, which was written immediately before Macbeth. Robert Armin, the actor who first spoke the lines in King Lear, had himself recycled them from another Shakespearean fool - Feste in Twelfth Night. As Shapiro notes, whether the lines are delivered by a witch, a destitute old man, or a fool, “the message is the same and familiar to admirers of the Coen brothers’ films - "Life is dark. Get used to it.”
Just as we hear the multiplied ‘nevers’ of old Lear upon the rack and observe Macbeth’s death at the hands of Macduff, we feel (as Aristotle first suggested) something like relief, a cathartic slackening of the importunities of pity and the tension of terror, a space perhaps for the flooding in of clear light. But Shakespeare also managed to include the different pain of grief in the resolution of his tragedies. The worst suffering in King Lear comes at the end, the accident after the resolution, for Lear expires in the illusion that Cordelia has returned (“Look on her, look, her lips, Look there, look there”). His heart, like Gloucester’s, bursts smilingly in the illusion of return, just as St Philip Neri finally experienced the Holy Spirit during the Feast of Pentecost in 1546 after years of prayer. The gift of divine love supposedly came as a ball of fire that entered his mouth and plunged into his heart with such force that it broke three of his ribs.
Hamlet also contains grief in its tragedy. His sluggish, aimless, protracted, and inactive suffering could as easily be ascribed to the workings of grief as to the more usual (and not incompatible) unacknowledged fear and desire for the Mother. Hamlet only really comes to life when he enters the world of death. It is not without reason that nineteenth-century portraits of actors always depicted him clutching Yorick’s skull, on the edge of the grave into which he jumps and from which manages to re-emerge with a new identity - “This is I, Hamlet the Dane!” Hamlet finally declares himself King. The primitive identity he lost and found is inseparable from that office. Hamlet’s experience still begins with the fact that his father was a King and he has to become one, too. And all this with less than an act to go.
Shakespeare pulls a similar bait-and-switch at the end of Macbeth with the character of Ross, one of several unremarkable characters who drift through the play and appears in eleven scenes, mostly as a device either to ask for news or share it with the audience. The idea of expanding his role can be traced back to MR Libby, a Canadian schoolteacher who published Some notes on Macbeth in 1893. He argued that Ross was “an ambitious intriguer, a man of some ambition but no moral worth, a coward, a spy,” and asserted with little evidence that he was the unnamed Third Murderer whom Macbeth instructed to ambush Banquo and his son Fleance. Polanski followed this line of dubious reasoning to justify the invention of a new ending and Coen is no exception, stating that he wanted to see if the idea “could be pressed further.”
Like Polanski, Coen cast Ross as the Third Murderer, but rather than getting rid of Fleance, he spares the boy’s life, not out of any sense of beneficent mercy, but simply to hedge his bets. Alex Hassle plays Ross as an inscrutable manipulator who visits Lady Macbeth just before she, her children, and their entire household are massacred. When he glances out of the window and sees the assassins approaching on horseback, he excuses himself with the lines, “Cruel are the times, when we are traitors, And do not know ourselves.” His sense of self-preservation contrasts sharply with her servant who, in another scene invented by Coen, overhears Macbeth’s plans and rushes to warn her, but is unable to prevent her murder. For Coen, only the treacherous and morally unprincipled of this world manage to survive and thrive.
While the witches prophesy that Banquo will be father to long line of kings, the play ends with Duncan’s eldest son Malcolm succeeding to the throne. Coen concludes his movie with Ross holding Macbeth’s severed head in one hand and his crown in the other, which he passes to Malcolm, saying, “Hail, King of Scotland.” He could well have ended it there (as did Shakespeare), but Coen has one last job left for Ross, who returns to the Old Man’s hovel where Fleance is sequestered and pulls him onto his horse.
They are last seen riding towards the cameras before they disappear in a dip in the road. The way the scene is shot, we expect to see them reappear as the road rises, but before the film’s final and abrupt blackout, the audience is unexpectedly confronted once again by a ‘murder’ of maddened crows, circling above and filling the screen with their barbaric shrieks. As Macbeth observed earlier in the play, ”Light thickens and the crow makes Wing to th’ rooky wood.”
In an obvious hat-tip to Hitchcock, the return of these cacophonous crows suggests that Malcolm’s imminent coronation will settle nothing. As in the Coen brothers’ entire cinematic universe, much more violence, horror, and pointlessly destructive conflict is yet to come. This carefully constructed film not only combines a very contemporary re-imagining of Shakespeare’s drama with a brilliant homage to film noir, but is also a repudiation of the nostalgic and illusory fantasy that things were better ‘once upon a time’ and will be so again at some point in future. As Shapiro concludes, this is indeed “a fitting message for our perilous and equivocating time.”