Joel Coen Shows He Can Work Solo

by Liam Trump ’24

Working as a solo director for the first time since 2003, director Joel Coen proves he can manage without his frequent collaborator/brother Ethan Coen with The Tragedy of Macbeth. Tapping into the classic tale of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Coen spins together a beautifully presented tale full of betrayal and vengeance.

Taking place in 11th century Scotland, The Tragedy of Macbeth tells the story of Macbeth (Denzel Washington), the Thane of Glamis, who receives a prophecy from a trio of witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter) who say that he will become the king of Scotland. With this new knowledge and heavy encouragement from his wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), he murders the then King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) to take the throne for himself and away from the would-be heir Malcolm (Harry Melling). While this may be a near one-to-one retelling of the play Macbeth, the original material is heightened through stunning cinematography and dynamic performances.

Having such meticulously crafted shots, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel strings together visuals that are works of art in their own right. The darker and lighter colors are accentuated with the black and white color grade, giving the world of The Tragedy of Macbeth a personality of its own. Coen’s depiction of Scotland is fantastical to a degree, but is reeled back, reflecting the dark and moody atmosphere. Alongside the overall presentation, the sets, costumes, and props give off a minimalistic feel which separates this latest outing from the rest of Coen’s filmography, allowing the casts’ performances to be the main focus.

With such a high-bill ensemble, Coen is able to effortlessly translate Shakespeare’s words onto the silver screen. Even with the numerous soliloquies the script has in store, the cast nailed scene after scene, with Washington and McDormand carrying the brunt of the film. The supporting cast members also do a fair job, with Corey Hawkins, Bertie Carvel, and Alex Hassell being some real standouts. The only weak links are the child actors, who luckily don’t have many dialogue-heavy scenes. 

Where The Tragedy of Macbeth falters, however, is in forming a foundation for the story to unfold. The beginning of the film suffers greatly from a lack of conflict. An array of characters are introduced, but none of them are interesting as a result. There are some expertly crafted visuals, but they’re in service to weak material at the start of the movie. 

Although the beginning greatly detracts from the movie’s initial appeal, the film picks up the slack as the plot unravels and more engaging story threads are introduced. The character of Macbeth in particular becomes increasingly more interesting to watch after he murders Duncan, eventually being enveloped by his own nihilism. The later events of The Tragedy of Macbeth provide theatrically choreographed action and satisfying conclusions for both Macbeth and Malcolm, two characters who had their fates laid out by the witches. 

Undertaking such a notable story from classic literature is a tall order, indeed, but Coen manages to pull it off. With his brother taking a leave of absence from filmmaking, it’s safe to say that it won’t be detrimental to the Coen name going forward.


Grade: B+