Sunday, January 9, 2022

What's Done Cannot Be Undone:

Tragedy, in the most classic sense, is about consequences. It’s forged in the moment where characters are confronted, inescapably, with the cold, hard facts of their downfall and realize that they brought it on themselves. It is thus that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is perhaps his most tragic tale. Not the saddest, and not the most dramatic, necessarily, but perhaps the most tragic for it sits almost entirely in that moment of realization. Macbeth is quickly brought to commit treasonous murder—from inscrutable witches on the one hand prophesying his kingship, and from a scheming wife’s goading on the other—and the rest of the play watches as the weight of such a deed sends him to his doom. This deep engagement in what happens and what inevitably results from those happenings is something writer-director Joel Coen, adapting the play for his first film without his brother Ethan, understands. (Quite a brotherly compliment to replace Ethan with the Bard; they do share a love of language.) The Coens have made a career out of films, often some mixture of bleakly suspenseful and darkly funny, about characters confronted with the distance between what they think they can get, and what life’s circumstances have in store for them. I often think of an exchange from their 2009 effort A Serious Man, still perhaps the finest film in a body of work made up almost entirely out of excellent films. In this moment, a harried professor confronts a befuddling student, telling him: “Actions have consequences.” To which the young man replies: “Yes, sir. Often.” The professor’s immediate frustrated response: “No! Always! Actions always have consequences.” There’s no running from that.

So here’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, a stark and unsparing black and white feature shot in sharp digital closeups, filmed on spare stages cloaked in artifice and darkness, backgrounds that are bleary and sets cavernously empty. A boxy aspect ratio forms a proscenium around the performers, trapping the characters even as their proximity to the camera often causes a startling immediacy. You can see every pore in their face, every wrinkle, each subtle darting of the eye or twitching of the lip. The film is at once intimately engaged in its actors’ decisions and held back at a theatrical remove—a cold and distant picture that’s nonetheless inscrutably, uncomfortably near. Coen’s vision of this story, made vivid by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Stefan Dechant, is one that’s part the high-contrast lighting of a film noir—a look that turns Lady Macbeth into a regal femme fatale—and the woozy constructed angles in crooked stairways and enormous windows of German expressionism—down to its extension of anxieties about dreams and realities. Coen at every turn emphasizes the moral confusion inside the characters by highlighting the foggy displacement around them. The opening shot looks like it is staring up into milky sky, a bird circling, until the fog starts thinning and we see it’s a vast expanse of pale dirt and puddle where crouches our otherworldly portents ready to unfold a grim tale in which its characters are cogs. In this warped world of oppressive contrast and artifice, the potential majesty of the throne is all implication—down to the landscapes terminating in blankness the color of a scrim, through which the castle can be only just barely glimpsed, a flicker in the distance like Kane’s Xanadu. You just know that’ll be unsatisfying for anyone who wants to rule there.

And that’s how Denzel Washington approaches the lead role, as a man who, perhaps unconsciously, already senses that achieving a royal status won’t solve the deep dissatisfactions in his soul. Washington takes his considerable charisma—he easily commands attention like few of his or any generation—and twists it inward in hesitation and guilt. His head hangs heavy even before the crown, like his mind really is plagued with scorpions, leading him to question his choices before, after, and as he makes them. He becomes a reluctant conduit for his own malevolence, and as such is almost going through the motions as a spectator. His soliloquies are hushed, tortured. His later outbursts of madness have none of the live-wire aggrandizement you might expect. Although he holds considerable power in the lives of the other characters, he always carries himself like a pawn. It’s an embodiment of what Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford, identifies as a central question of the text: “Is [Macbeth] in control of his own actions…or is he merely working out a part that has been written—by witches’ prophecies, by historical chronicle, by Shakespeare himself?” Washington’s approach wrings pathos from this uncertainty as he frets his hour upon the stage, worried that his life, in the end, will signify nothing. Coen’s film never once roots for his victory; it sees too well how this insecurity leads to his brutality. And Macbeth’s uncomfortable wracked nerves and slippery senses in this telling makes the characters plotting his downfall seem like an act of planning to put him out of his misery.

The movie constantly feels the crushing weight of inevitability. Other characters exist either in direct dialogue with Macbeth, or lurk outside of his notice, each playing their preordained part in the tale. There’s his wife (Francis McDormand), a brittle shiv of ambition whose inability to handle hiding their dark deeds marks the couple’s conjoined unraveling. There are assorted men of more and less power in the kingdom (Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Harry Melling, Ralph Ineson, and more) who go under the knife or jostle for power in ways violent, righteous, and self-involved. (Stephen Root’s careless drunken babbling is a fine counterpoint there.) And then there’s the innocent, victimized Lady Macduff (Moses Ingram) sees her home and family burned to the ground by the cruelty of men’s ambitions. All are brought into the nightmare logic of the filming and of the tragedy, positioned as fellow travelers in what fate has in store. Everything is trapped in that aim, as just another facet of the design. Loud on the soundtrack are the steady drips of falling water, or blood—thuds and knocks in a regular rhythm like Poe’s tell-tale heart, or the clock that one should ask not for whom it tolls. We hear fluttering birds and heavy footfalls against cavernous castle walls, every action a reaction. The three witches, all deviously inhabited in the contorted body and raspy voice of the same performer (Kathryn Hunter), remain scarily ambiguous, clearly otherworldly and possessed of dark powers through shifting specters. Are they predicting the future or controlling it? Everything they say comes to pass. Yet dark forces unleashed by greed, guilt, and despair have their own cruel, predictable logic. And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. Tragically, one can find too late the consequences of actions are all one’s left in the end. They can signify everything.

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