Here's the thing about William Shakespeare's Macbeth: you are first introduced it in some manner – you read it in high school, attend a local stage production, watch one of the many cinematic adaptations – and then if you ever willfully sit through it again, it's mainly to see what the director does with the material. Which is to say, Macbeth is not a story that invites radical interpretations, or even surprises. The story remains stubbornly the same: Scottish thane Macbeth is informed by witches that he shall be king; he and his wife decide to murder the current king in order to make that happen; both go crazy from guilt and paranoia; both die.
Macbeth is thus a curious choice for Joel Coen's first feature without the involvement of his brother Ethan. He's such a creative filmmaker, yet the material is so shopworn: couldn't he have picked a more obscure or pliable source to adapt, rather than something already done – and done well – by Orson Welles, Roman Polanski, and Akira Kurosawa, just to name a few? What could Coen possibly bring to the table that would make this Macbeth feel fresh and vital?
The look of the film is certainly unique: Coen shot it in stark black and white, in the old 4:3 aspect ratio, on purposefully artificial-looking sets. (He might be the first major director to shoot a feature entirely on Hollywood soundstages since the 1960s.) It harkens back to silent movies, in particular Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, and its clean white minimalism is also a sort of meta-reference to the film's financiers: Apple Computer. (Call it iMacbeth.) The visuals are often stunning, and Coen treats the whole matter with utmost seriousness – you'll find none of his usual winking cynicism here. There's a sense that this is a personal project that he and his wife Frances McDormand (who plays Lady Macbeth and is also credited as producer) have wanted to do for a long time, so the film's existence may simply come down to that.
As the titular thane, Denzel Washington imports his usual gravitas, although his performance is a slow burn. He eventually brings the heat, but his early monologues are more contemplative than anguished. The mostly no-name supporting cast does a fine job at delivering Shakespeare's florid lines with clarity; Like most directors, Coen pared down the dialogue to keep his runtime digestible.
Way back when I was at CalArts, one of my teachers, Lou Florimonte, made a great point about why, at its core, Macbeth doesn't totally work: We never get an "Act 1" in which we get to like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, so we never care about their corruption or their downfall. To this end, I've always imagined that if I were to helm a production of the play, I'd open it with a scene of the couple burying their dead child – obviously it would have to be dialogue-free, as Shakespeare never wrote this – and then Macbeth being called off to battle, leaving his wife to grieve alone. The text makes it clear that the Macbeths are "fruitless", yet there's at least one inference that they once had offspring. If done right, my imagined prologue would help the audience understand why the two would resent the King, and why each would be prone to madness.
Alas, Coen doesn't add such any such prologue, and so The Tragedy of Macbeth doesn't succeed on any level that previous adaptations didn't succeed. Aside from rendering the three witches into a single character (Kathryn Hunter, excellent), the film's only really unusual choice is that it elevates the minor character of Ross (Alex Hassell) into a major player.