You are currently viewing Joel Coen delivers the scariest version of ‘Macbeth’

Throughout their filmography, the Coen brothers have combined films based on original ideas with adaptations of literary works of prominent 20th-century American authors such as Dashiell Hammett (death among the flowers, 1990), Cormac McCarthy (No country for old men, 2007) or Jack London (one of the stories of La balada de Buster Scruggs, 2018).

All of them, in any case, were well aligned with the Coen universe –or perhaps we could say that they contributed to shaping it–, whether in its most noir (Hammett) or in his approach to the western (McCarthy and London). However, the famous brothers had also dared with Homero in the fantastic O Brother! (2000), an uninhibited review of The odyssey –even betrayal– that ended up being a hilarious fresco of American culture and folklore.

Now, Joel Coen has once again set his sights on a classic text, Macbeth, but his approach has not required postmodern experiments, perhaps because thematically the work fits like a glove to much of his corpus filmic

This is the story of a crime, or rather, the story of the price that is inevitable to pay for the crime committed, something that is at the heart of films like easy blood (1984), Fargo (1996) or the aforementioned No country for old men. After all, all of the Coens’ films could take on Macbeth’s lament that “life is but a marching shadow; It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, meaning nothing.”

Popular Vocation

Furthermore, bridging the gap of 400 years, there is something that powerfully connects the Bard of Avon with the filmmaker from Minneapolis: both are creators with a popular vocation, with the entertainment of the public as a goal definitive of his creations. Although curiously this Macbeth, which premieres in Spain directly on Apple TV, may be too hermetic and dark for the general public. Hard drug, some would say.

Thematically, the work fits like a glove to the filmography of the Coens: the price to pay for the crime committed

If we talk about Joel and not about the Coen brothers, it is because Ethan, for the first time in more than 35 years of career, has not accompanied his brother on this adventure. The youngest of the saga has decided to park the cinema to focus on the theater (curious irony), but it does not seem that there are irreconcilable problems between the two. So, at least, Joel stated in an interview last September in Deadline: “We’ve taken a break from each other in order to pursue other goals. I think doing Shakespeare is something that Ethan wasn’t interested in, and he’s doing things that I’m not interested in, and that’s something that we’ve always done while we weren’t making a movie. […] But this doesn’t mean we won’t work together anymore, it just means we don’t now.”

Joel Coen, however, has not wanted to lose the old customs and has once again opted for bicephaly to carry out the project. Frances McDormand, who in addition to his fetish actress is his partner since the 80s, not only plays Lady Macbeth but also acts as producer of the film. It does not seem trivial that, in the first project they lead together, at the center of the story is a married couple, perhaps the best match of all those created by the English author, although also the most self-destructive.

Shot in black and white, the film escapes medieval realism to insert itself into a world of nightmare

The path that the Macbeths travel because of the power ambition is strewn with death and leads inevitably to tragedy (yes, it rhymes with Fargo). A spectacular Denzel Washington replicates McDormand as Lord Macbeth, configuring both a marriage of a more mature age than those offered by other directors in the translation of the work to the cinema, which opens the film to new perspectives. This Macbeth is cool and determined, while his ultimately infertile spouse is as ruthless and tenacious as ever. The murder of Rey Duncan It does not seem more than an excuse to fill the void that the couple is looking at.

In any case, it is the mise-en-scène that markedly differentiates this version from the previous ones and also makes this film a rare notice in the filmography of the director. Joel Coens respect the verse and plot of the original work, it only cuts certain passages to favor the rhythm, but the experience of being before Shakespeare is complete. Not only Washington and McDormand shine, a cast full of brilliant actors secondary (Harry Melling, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Alex Hassell…) embroider the old English and give truth to their characters.

Bet on Abstraction

But it is the commitment to abstraction when setting the work that offers a deep originality to this adaptation. Shot in a square format and in contrasting black and white, this Macbeth he escapes from medieval realism to enter a world of nightmare.

Since the appearance of the witches (performed with fascinating diction and gestures by Kathryn Hunter), in a particularly inspired sequence, the film inserts itself into the horror genre. And it does so with a firm commitment to production design and photography -in charge of Stefan Dean Y Bruno Delbonnel, respectively– that takes us back to the times of German expressionism, to the films of Val Lewton, to the environments of the seventh seal (1957) by Bergman or the The word (1955) of Carl Theodor Dreyer or to the authoritarian imaginary of Orson Welles in The process (1962). The result exceeds the sum of its references and creates an atmosphere of terrifying beauty.

Other famous adaptations of Macbeth


Orson Welles, 1948. In Movistar +

Still from ‘Macbeth’ (1948), by Orson Welles.

Movistar Plus

It was the first time that Welles approached Shakespeare, and therefore himself, on screen, for as Joseph McBride wrote, Welles returned to the genius of Stratford-upon-Avon each time he sought his artistic identity. After several problems in Hollywood, the director recovered his independence in a papier-mache production and dialogues in verse, preserving his theatrical style.

throne of blood

Akira Kurosawa, 1957. En Filmin

Still from 'Throne of Blood', by Akira Kurosawa (1957)

Still from ‘Throne of Blood’, by Akira Kurosawa (1957)

of the movie

In Akira Kurosawa’s version, which adapted several European works to the Japanese context, the fog creates an atmosphere of anguish and mystery that underlines the feelings of guilt of the samurai Taketoki Washizu, played by Toshirô Mifune, perhaps the weakest Macbeth in the face of evil of his wife. The favorite film of poet and playwright TS Elliot and filmmaker Win Wenders.

Macbeth. A man in front of the king

Roman Polanski, 1971. And Apple TV

Still from 'Macbeth.  A Man Facing the King', by Roman Polanski (1971)

Still from ‘Macbeth. A Man Facing the King’, by Roman Polanski (1971)

Apple TV

The longest and bloodiest of all, and the first in color. Polanski, with a production for Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, approached it as a catharsis to face the murder of his wife Sharon Tate two years earlier, eight and a half months pregnant, by Charles Manson’s ‘The Family’. Badly received at the time, today it maintains an aura of dread and horror that is difficult to match.


Justin Kurzel, 2015. In Filmin and Apple TV

Still from 'Macbeth', by Justin Kurzel (2015)

Still from ‘Macbeth’, by Justin Kurzel (2015)

Movies / Apple TV.

Solid work from both Australian director Justin Kurzel and Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in the lead roles. Kurzel puts a lot of scissors into the text in search of an intensity that favors fluidity and wraps the story in a forceful and somewhat gimmicky aesthetic but always at the service of the story.

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