There are only three actual witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. That’s the story of the “Scottish Play” as we know it: foul, foggy, and — if karma is real — damningly fair to its titular king-to-be, who takes the germ of an idea proposed by that trio of “weird sisters,” the idea that he will become king, and allows it to metastasize into a consuming, destructive hunger for power. The kind of hunger that makes you kill your friends, slaughter children, wreak havoc in pursuit of what will only last as long as you’re alive. Which, in Macbeth’s case, is not for much longer.
What if there were a fourth witch? Not in the literal sense, but rather a meddler, a planter of devious seeds. This powerful intervener is far more hands-on, nudging the action along this way and that, getting their hands dirty in the cloak and dagger of it all and — in line with those witches, pending how you interpret them — shaping the fate of the play’s tragic hero with an almost godlike knowingness and an equally potent silence.
This wouldn’t require some radical revision of the original play, which endures in part because the tangle of influences on Macbeth’s desires can lean in multiple directions, depending how we want to spin it. The most memorable film adaptations over the years attest to this, from Orson Welles’ low-budget, noirish version in 1948, to Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 Throne of Blood (in which the three witches are whittled down to one evil spirit who, like mythology’s Three Fates, work a loom while delivering Macbeth the news of his imminent power), to Roman Polanski’s notorious 1971 adaptation, controversial in its time for its bloody rendering of things Shakespeare left to the imagination. We could be talking about Lady Macbeth (whose gradual disillusionment with her husband’s schemes is palpable for Welles, whereas Kurosawa, Polanski, and many others paint her in more starkly manipulative terms) or some other player.
However it happens, Macbeth is often enough inclined toward his worst impulses by someone egging him on out of their own self-interest. What resounds, in every great version of this play, is a sense that culpability is hardly the flaw of Macbeth’s alone. Proximity to power creates hunger in even those who’ll only briefly have any chance to wield it. But the mere chance… That it proves so titillating for so many is part of what Macbeth exposes about everyone involved — and everyone watching.
Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth — which is now streaming on Apple TV+ after a brief theatrical run — is both satisfying and limited, spot-on and slightly off, for myriad reasons. But you can’t fault it for lacking a genuine sense of interpretation, the type of deviation from the original material that works to illuminate ideas that had been there from the start. Adapted from the play by Coen himself, with Denzel Washington as our titular antihero and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, this is very much a Coen movie in its worldview. The story plays out in what feels like a bleak, vacuum-sealed, artificial nowhere, filmed (by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel) in crisp black and white images, with the drama thrashing forward entirely on sound stages. The world of this Macbeth feels as horizonless as the king-to-be’s prospects. Clearly, this is to the point.
Design is what proves striking here above most else, even the extraordinarily talented array of actors — even the nimble, spindly Kathryn Hunter, who plays the witches and, later, an old man. Because it’s in the movie’s design that its ideas thrive most freely and convincingly. The castle of this future King of Scotland is barren — and barrenness is one of the creeping themes here. The Macbeths are childless, after all, and unlike their iterations in those other adaptations, older. No son? No heir. This reign is doomed from the start. Hence the joylessness of the Macbeths’ home. The castle walls are tall but unvarnished, unless you’d count light and shadow as decor. Furnishings are minimal. The atrium is more panopticon than kingly foyer, designed with power and perspective in mind: From certain vantages, one can hide completely out of view there, yet with a clear view of most everything, seeing all, knowing all, while revealing nothing.
Hard to imagine this being the home of a character played by Denzel Washington. But into this bleak well of nothingness he strides, confident but encumbered, his mind poisoned by the witches’ promise. You know the story. A battle; a fit of treachery; a run-in for Macbeth and his great friend and fellow warrior Banquo (Bertie Carvel, whose brush-bristly eyebrows are worth an essay unto themselves) with the witches, who not only foretell the crown for Macbeth, but for Banquo’s sons as well. The men don’t take the odd encounter seriously, until the circumstances of that earlier treachery result in Macbeth coming one step closer to what the witches have promised. And then we’re off. Lady Macbeth receives word of what’s to come and, independently of her husband — who doesn’t exactly overexert himself trying to stop her — hatches a plan to kill the current king (Brendan Gleeson).
Familiarity does not damn this or any other promising approach to this play, because its circumstances are simply too strange. And Coen heightens that strangeness. Hunter, a master of physical theater — if Peter Jackson had cast her as Gollum he’d have saved millions on his CGI budget — opens the film in a fit of contortion, crawling over herself like a confused crab, limbs snagging on themselves. She recites the three witches’ lines with a care that makes each sorceress vocally distinct, yet captivates for making even this basic fact somewhat ambiguous. (Later, we see her reflection in a pool of water, confirming that she is, indeed, a one-woman triumvirate of mischief.) All of this is to say nothing of her crowing antics, the caws and croaks and utter animalism that accompany the image of her grasping some poor soldier’s discarded thumb betwixt her toes, mumbling the poetry of Shakespeare’s spooky premonitions. If not for adding a surprisingly spicy flash of potency to what follows, the performance would amount to nothing more than a sideshow. But in this Macbeth, she’s all the more useful for her actorly tricks — for her sense of the witches as tricksters above all. If the world of this movie is a snow globe being shaken up at the director’s will, Hunter’s witches are the flakes, whirling beyond even the creator’s control, coating everything, beholden to motions all their own.
Where Hunter is all the more otherworldly for being so fully human as an actor, Denzel Washington’s take on Macbeth is very much earthbound, flawed and soul-bearing in ways that can only be human. This isn’t The Tragedy of for no reason: Washington’s humanity reminds us of this much. So, for that matter, does that of the rest of the cast, ranging from Corey Hawkins’ Macduff to short but sweet turns from the likes of Ralph Ineson and Moses Ingram — all warm bodies thrown headlong into this tragic maw of nihilistic absence that Coen, in excess of Shakespeare, has devised.
Washington of course stands out. His Macbeth is reminiscent of the everyman archetypes he’s grown so adept at over the years. This isn’t a man of grandiloquent emotion but, rather, a wary man, an aging warrior, whose desire for power proves so convincing precisely because Washington carries in him the weight and knowledge of a man who’s put in his time. Younger actors can’t convince us of this in the same way — hence a tendency, in some interpretations, to slip more quickly into a misguided bloodthirst. Macbeth has sometimes come off as a man too big for his britches — and punished for it accordingly. Washington’s natural easygoingness advances a different idea. Yes, this Macbeth is damned by his ambition. But at the heart of that ambition is the sense, at least at first, that he’s only really reaching for what he has rightfully earned.
In a way, this becomes a problem for the movie. Washington’s expressiveness, paired with the neatly trimmed script Coen has devised, nearly mitigates the language in some moments. The slaying of King Duncan (Gleeson) by Macbeth, and the subsequent slaying of Duncan’s attendants — also by Macbeth — is immediately followed by an abundance of explanation: Macbeth running the risk of exposing himself as the murderer with too many words, too much handwringing over his passions. Washington’s cool, collected performance to this point somehow makes this moment feel saggy with verbiage; the movie’s thriller-esque overtones aren’t always a welcome match for Shakespeare’s deft psychologizing.
Washington also sets a high bar for McDormand, whose delivery doesn’t come quite as naturally. Strangely, even with Hunter skulking about and bending herself into a piece of human origami, McDormand’s is the performance that most stands out for feeling “actorly,” the down-homeness of her diction feeling more false here than it did in films like Nomadland and Three Billboards. Washington and McDormand have no chemistry — but this is a good thing, befitting of the couple’s childlessness and speaking, as it does, to a desire to grasp for a power that will necessarily fail to stay within the family. (It also proves an effective counterpoint to the warmth of Hawkins’ Macduff and Ingram’s Lady Macduff; if you know the play, you know what’s bound to happen there, and the charisma of these actors makes it that much sadder.)
In the grand scheme of things, this is the Macbeth you know, if not the Macbeth you love: Its outlook is a different flavor of bleak than the norm, which is welcome. The screws have been tightened just so, such that the delirious inner dramas of Shakespeare’s original play feel unmoored from anything like reality. Until reality comes crashing in: with fire and fog, and swordplay, and fits of emotion that clash against the stark, crisp beauty of its images. With the vast landscapes of Scotland so damningly obscured, and the action so hemmed in, one rightly begins to wonder what it’s all for — what there is, in this world, that could be worth so many betrayals, when anything like a future tense is so hard to imagine. To say that the movie feels empty by the end is not to criticize it. Truly — what is this all for? Other takes on Macbeth at least make power seem appealing. That’s not Coen’s game. And he’s made a movie that ultimately, and often wonderfully, hammers this home. The dread is real, even if the environs are not.
As for the ostensible “fourth witch,” the movie’s prime meddler and secret power player: Suffice it to say that it’s in the character of Ross (played by the wonderfully suggestive Alex Hassell) that Coen’s movie makes its most intriguing intervention. Keep an eye on the slinking, spying curiosity of a man whose snaky sheath of an outfit suits his personality most capably. His is a presence most other takes on Macbeth have tended to take for granted; he’s a minor-ish character, in the scheme of things. But that’s the thing about schemes — and schemers. Fargo, Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading: Coen, alongside his brother and usual collaborator Ethan, is no stranger to the pitfalls of so-called “best laid plans.” The Tragedy of Macbeth is Joel’s first outing on his own but, in this regard, he’s made a movie that suits the broader world of his work. That he’s done so most cogently through a character most other approaches to this play have barely noticed only makes it that much more thrilling.