At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Tragedy of Macbeth “2021”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Drama/ Stars: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Harry Melling, Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Kathryn Hunter, Moses Ingram, Ralph Ineson, Sean Patrick Thomas, Stephen Root, Brian Thompson, Richard Short/ Runtime: 105 minutes

I think it is safe to say that if there was a recurring theme to be found in the film catalogue of the gifted film helming duo that is the Coen Brothers it would be that crime does not pay. Indeed be it told in a way that is comical (Burn After Reading or Fargo) or dark and serious (Miller’s Crossing and especially No Country for Old Men), the Coens have managed to prove themselves one of the finest duos at showing from a cinematic perspective how what comes around really can come back and bite a person square on in the butt. Perhaps it’s only fitting then that one of this brother duo has decided to make the choice to helm a new adaptation of one of the more classic sagas of a man committing an atrocious act only to have his comeuppance come and wreak havoc on his life: William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “Yet Alan” you might be saying “Macbeth has been adapted quite a few times cinematically with one of the most recent coming not even 10 years ago so what could anyone hope to get out of a new adaptation that hasn’t been done before?” Well I must confess dear reader that I too had those thoughts in my head when I first received word of this project. Yet after watching the finished product, I can happily say that my doubts have now been to put to ease though in all fairness a chunk of them were calmed when I read that no less an actor than screen icon Denzel Washington would be playing the titular role. Even with that in mind, there is no denying the fact that, thanks to truly magnificent work on both sides of the camera, what this slice of cinema has managed to achieve is more than give us a brilliant adaptation on a timeless work, but a film that I predict future generations will turn to (despite a fairly questionable R rating) when they want to see what it looks like when someone does a cinematic take on the Bard’s work that is no more and no less than pure excellence.

The plot is as follows: Taking us back in time to a chaotic period in Scottish history where literally every man and his brother to say nothing of a couple of foreign powers was vying for the royal throne or at least fighting for someone who was, we quickly see that Macbeth is both a loyal soldier as well as a kinsman to the current King, a lad by the name of Duncan. When our story starts proper we see that, in the aftermath of a particularly bloody yet well-fought skirmish, Macbeth is quickly and deservedly ordained by Duncan as Thane (or Baron) of Glamis. However for as wonderful this honor is and should be for our “hero”, we see that he still feels like he deserves more. A problem that will present itself with a possible solution in the form of a group of otherworldly women foretelling to him that Macbeth will one day be King himself. Thus, with some firm and not exactly subtle prodding by his wife, we see Macbeth decide to take matters into his own hands and brutally and viscerally butchers the King in his sleep and then nabs the royal crown for himself. Yet we soon see this assumed to be quick and simplistic coup soon start to show a problem or 5. An issue mostly because Macbeth and his wife start having to deal with their sanity and peace of mind be seriously attacked from within by the guilt of what they have done. Thus if our “hero” is to keep his crown, his kingdom, and most important, his head he is going to have to resort to drastic measures. Measures that may be messy, may be heartbreaking, and may be bloody, but most assuredly will bring Macbeth and his wife closer and closer to toppling headfirst into the abyss of madness….

Now behind the camera, it should be noted that this slice of cinema is an absolute masterpiece to behold. This starts with the fact that this 2021 take on William Shakespeare’s arguably most infamous play is one that was filmed completely in black and white and in the ratio of 1.19:1, a ratio that is one that avid cinematic scholars will undoubtedly recognize as being from the conclusion of the silent era of movie magic. It is that respect that, much in the same vein as the screen ratio truly feels like a loving throwback to a time-honored era in the world of cinema, so too must it be said that a lot of the imagery that Coen manages to conjure up in partnership with his incredibly gifted cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel as well as his immensely skilled production designer Stefan Dechant really does a wonderful job of ensuring that you feel like you are wigging out through some of the more wild moments cinema has given audiences. Now I get it: even a director of a music video can rip off other things and call it “a tribute”. Yet with this slice of cinema, Joel Coen doesn’t just merely give us a movie that looks like the films of old. Rather, he also recreates the mood that went with the look of those older films to say nothing of those older films’ distinct atmosphere complete with shadows flirting around like something you might see in an old school fairy tale and the larger than life yet quite claustrophobic at points spaces where a beam of light can also show us a remarkable degree of insight into a character’s psyche. I mean whenever you’re watching this film, the look that this film comes with will remind the avid film lovers amongst you of such examples as a film noir on the level of The Maltese Falcon, a live performance of the actual play akin to what Disney+ did with Hamilton, the sequestered nightmarish realms found in the iconic slice of cinema “The Seventh Seal”, and the operatic yet haunting catacombs of “Phantom of the Opera” among other tributes. Indeed in their own stark way, these is some truly gorgeous imagery. However if this slice of cinema was just a lovely picture book take on one of the Bard’s more infamous plays then I definitely would not care about this as much as I do. Fortunately, Coen is a fantastic director even when not working alongside his just as famous brother and utilizes this slice of cinema’s imagery to conjure up a space that transforms into a maze of a man’s psyche to say nothing of a playground for its characters to bustle in even if said playground has the occasional blood puddle here and there to make things lively in a way that only someone with a fixation for visual greatness could achieve. Finally, I know that for some the fact that 99.5% of this slice of cinema was filmed on a soundstage might be a detractor for some, but for me I not only found it a wonderfully eerie unhooking from reality to say nothing of matching up brilliantly with both the Bard whose degree of craftiness really does stick out like a sore thumb at times and the imagery brought to the screen by Coen that permits him to root this adaptation with a degree of comprehension and familiarity that also manages to spring forth a degree of the humanity of the source material as well.

Now in terms of performances, this slice of cinema is the blessed recipient of possessing some of the most riveting work by a cast in a movie this year. This starts with a typical powerhouse lead performance by screen icon Denzel Washington in the titular role. I mean sure you can make the choice to look at this infamous character as a simple guy whose desires make him into a blood thirsty maniac, but Washington with a slightly scraggly beard and a close-crop silver-smattering hairstyle that seems to blend in with the design of this slice of cinema phenomenally well, chooses to portray him more as an externally gracious middle aged company slime who is on the verge of retirement. I mean make no mistake dear reader: Washington is one of those rare performers who has always been seen as a bit of a gifted orator and certainly does not need Shakespeare in order to showcase that for an audience (even if I love his work as Don Pedro in 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing). Yet in this slice of cinema, we see that Washington makes the creative choice to take himself down a notch or two and in the process find a human perspective to the man’s hostility. I mean this is a movie in which two characters consisting of our “hero” and his wife try desperately to become murderous and power hungry maniacs only to find themselves taking things perhaps a step or five too far and as a result falling flat on their faces. Indeed when a trinity of witches foretell that our “hero” will achieve a higher lot in life and he is able to do so, we see that this guy starts to believe that maybe the other prophecy they gave him will occur. Yet when he meets the person who stands in his way of achieving that, courtesy of a tent meeting, we also witness the first degree of desperation-induced coveting emerge courtesy of a forced smile on Washington’s face when the individual reveals that his boy will take over should anything happen to him. Yet despite his bitter disappointment we see that Washington, whose skill with casually engaging in Shakespearean dialogue is second to none, is able to keep the man’s desire under lock and key. Rather, it’s only after holding conference with his wife who has engaged in a sort of deal with the devil who firmly pushes him to kill to get what he wants that we see Macbeth steel his nerves and resolve to do the deed. However when it comes time for us to see the murder that is supposed to set Macbeth upon the path to greatness it quickly becomes apparent that, although desperate for the crown, Washington’s Macbeth is not exactly the best when it comes to being a sociopathic and truly heartless stone cold killer. Indeed his brutal slaughter of the pair of guards who were supposed to take the fall for the murder that Macbeth himself had committed is a choice of such head scratching proportions that when we see Lady Macbeth looking up at him as if to say “why in the world would you do such a stupid blunder?!” we may be mortified, but we see still the degree of human vulnerability that Washington gives the character that thankfully remains consistent throughout even as we see him lose more and more of his grip in his frantic attempts to keep his tracks covered. Put another way: here is a man who is taken over by his wicked desires, but who is still able to retain some degree of humanity throughout to the point that is surprisingly heartwrenching to see how far down the rabbit hole of madness the character goes. Yet besides the work done here by Washington, this slice of cinema is also blessed with a wonderful group of support performances. This starts with Frances McDormand who is downright terrifying as Lady Macbeth. Indeed here is a woman who while loyal to her husband also has the venom of a king cobra, the ferocity of a lion, and a fairly unassailable ironclad will and McDormand sells it all absolutely brilliantly. We also get terrific work from Bertie Carvel whose turn as Banquo possesses such a genuine and loving bond of brotherhood with Macbeth that how his character winds up in this narrative truly is the very definition of despicable ruthless, Brendan Gleeson who does terrific in his extended cameo as King Duncan, Kathryn Hunter who is the stuff of nightmares as the trinity of witches, and Corey Hawkins who is wonderfully ferocious and driven in his brilliant take on Macduff. Suffice it to say that every single performer in this does amazing work in their respective parts no matter how big or small their role may be.

All in all the best cinematic adaptations are not the ones that disappear from memory after enough time has passed. Rather, they’re the ones that burrow into your heart and your psyche and stay lodged there no matter how many other movies you see or how much time comes and goes between when you view it. I think it’s safe to say that The Tragedy of Macbeth “2021” is definitely destined to be such a film. Indeed, much in the way that madness inflicts itself upon our tortured protagonist, this slice of cinema is one that will haunt you long after the credits have rolled. More than that however, this is a slice of cinema that is not just a terrific example of the Bard done right, but is also riveting proof that cinema can still be a work of art especially when it is made and developed with not only reverence and skill, but also an equal amount of heart and passion as well. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Tragedy of Macbeth “2021” a solid 4.5 out of 5.