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Bardcore Noir: Joel Coen, Shakespeare and The Tragedy of Macbeth

Our protagonist is a hard working middle-class guy. He’s got a house, he’s married, he makes a decent wage. He’s got a few complaints, some outstanding debts, but nobody’s life is perfect, right? He’s making do, and what he’s got is good enough. But then an opportunity drops into this character’s lap. It could not only solve his problems, but give him a life he’d never even considered previously. All he’s got to do is get his hands a little dirty. And then dirtier. And then dirtier still.

This is “The Tragedy of Macbeth” we’re talking about, but the description could easily fit Jerry Lundegaard ("Fargo"), Llewellyn Moss ("No Country for Old Men"), or H.I. McDonough ("Raising Arizona"). Make the financial situation a shade more desperate, the marriage more troubled, and you’ve got Larry Gopnik from “A Serious Man.” Change the lead character to a crew of numbskull personal trainers and it’s “Burn After Reading.” The noir elements of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play have long been present in the work of Joel and Ethan Coen, whether they’re working in drama, screwball comedy, or revisionist Westerns.

As Joel Coen’s new adaptation of Macbeth makes abundantly clear, the play provides a kind of Rosetta Stone for his and his brother’s legendary filmography. Coen’s first film without Ethan is his most straightforward adaptation to date. The brothers’ other interpretations of literary works and classic films (“O Brother, Where Art Thou,” “True Grit,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “The Ladykillers” among them) reconfigured the source material to fit their filmmaking proclivities. Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” however, changes barely a word of Shakespeare’s dialogue. That choice seems surprising up front, until you consider the text of the play itself.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” considers the Coen-friendly themes of life’s absurd cruelty, the consequences of sin, the question of fate, and the utter foolishness of man with a frankness Ed Tom Bell or Rooster Cogburn could easily get behind. A line like “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill,” or the assertion that life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” could be thesis statements for “Blood Simple,” “Barton Fink,” or “The Big Lebowski.” Those plain-spoken truths also have the ring of wisdom literature, appropriate for the co-creator of "A Serious Man"'s Old Testament-style lamentation and the anthologized parables of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” 

In “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” those concepts center on the title character’s pursuit of Scotland’s throne. After winning a victory for the king against the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his comrade Banquo (Bertie Carvel) meet a trio of witches, played to schizophrenic, contortioned perfection by Kathryn Hunter. The witches prophesy Macbeth will assume the defeated Thane of Cawdor’s title, and later become king. Their words are confirmed when Macbeth is later informed that he has indeed been granted that promotion.

When Macbeth tells his wife (Frances McDormand) of his encounter with the witches, Lady Macbeth seizes on the prophecy, manifesting it by instructing her husband to kill the King (Brendan Gleeson) and pin the blame on the princes (Harry Melling and Matt Helm). That act requires additional acts of violence to cover it up, leading now King Macbeth and his queen to mounting guilt, paranoia, and madness. Their reign ends in a coup led by Melling’s exiled prince Malcolm and MacDuff (Corey Hawkins), a nobleman whose family Macbeth had killed.

Like Macbeth, many Coen brothers characters grasp for something (money, revenge, a replacement living room rug) that they think will satisfy their desires. In nearly all cases, they rarely realize their true predicament until it’s too late. Jerry Lundegaard believes his plan to hire men to abduct his wife in “Fargo” is a straightforward deal with a worthy payoff until the moment he’s arrested. Llewellyn Moss’ discovery of a briefcase full of drug money in “No Country for Old Men” feels like a gift until the consequences appear in the ghoulish form of Anton Chigurh. H.I. and Ed’s baby-napping scheme in “Raising Arizona” seems a natural solution to their childlessness until they face the reality of sudden parenthood.

Macbeth’s brief time on the throne ends in disaster, with no heir and no legacy. Such a darkly funny futility is also a Coen brothers hallmark. Despite the misguided or Machiavellian machinations of the Coens’ characters, everything usually ends up back at the status quo, the world frustratingly unchanged. In “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Malcolm, who was next in line for the throne originally, still ends up ruling the country. Macbeth’s time in charge barely registers as a bloody blip on the cosmic viewscreen.

For a parallel, consider the closing scene of “Burn After Reading,” in which J.K. Simmons’ CIA Superior is briefed by David Rasche’s officer Palmer DeBakey Smith on the disaster of ineptitude that makes up the movie’s story. “What did we learn, Palmer?” Simmons’ character asks. “I don’t know, sir,” Palmer responds. “I don’t f**king know either. I guess we learned not to do it again,” Simmons exasperatedly concludes. The players are paid off, or left to rot in favor of a government cover-up, and life returns to normal.

There’s also the question of fate versus free will that defines Macbeth and his wife’s pursuit of power. The first part of the witches’ prophecy—Macbeth becoming Thane of Cawdor—comes true through no direct action of his own. Would he have eventually become king if he and Lady Macbeth were patient, or was murder always part of the deal? If he’d risen through less violent means, would his reign have been longer? More productive? Or was it destined to work out this way?

The question of fate, and whether supernatural forces dictate our lives, is another frequent Coen brothers theme. In the final frames of “A Serious Man,” Michael Stuhlbarg’s long-suffering math professor Larry Gopnik finally caves and accepts a bribe from a student after a series of tragic, financially-strapping incidents, as a tornado touches down outside his son’s school. Were Larry’s trials a divine test? Is the tornado punishment for giving up his ethical principles, or just the latest bad break in a series of them?  

“No Country for Old Men” has a more decisive take. When Anton Chigurh tells Carla Jean Moss to call his coin toss, determining whether or not he’ll kill her, she refuses. “The coin don’t have no say,” she tells him, “It’s just you.” Her response visibly unnerves Chigurh. The man clearly gets perverse joy from killing, but the coin toss allows him moral distance. He can tell himself that it’s the universe determining his victims’ deaths, not him. Carla Jean’s statement puts responsibility squarely in his court. Maybe fate has no role in what happens to us, and we are simply the products of our own choices.

As Washington’s Macbeth sits on his throne, surrounded by the consequences of his actions, the slack-jawed look of overwhelm on his face feels like the alpha and the omega of Joel Coen’s filmography. He’s the origin for decades of existentially perplexed, morally compromised Coen characters. He’s also the summation. Coen’s latest film is like a package placed in front of the viewer with a tag saying “This is it. This is the whole thing.” “The Tragedy of Macbeth” isn’t a career finale, but if it were, it would be hard to imagine a more fitting capstone. 

Abby Olcese

Abby Olcese is a film critic and writer based in Kansas City, where she is the film editor for The Pitch Magazine. Abby is a regular contributor to RogerEbert.com, Sojourners Magazine and Think Christian, where she writes about the intersection of popular culture and spirituality.

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