The Tragedy of Macbeth comes burdened with a simply relentless amount of baggage, as much as any motion picture released in 2021. First, there's the matter of the material itself: why in God's name do we need another film of Macbeth? It is perhaps the Shakespeare play to have been the best-served by the movies: by my count, the only one to have produced more than one capital-G Great cinematic adaptation (Kurosawa Akira's Throne of Blood in 1957, Roman Polanksi's 1971 version, and one could undoubtedly make a good case for the Orson Welles version from 1948, though I would not be altogether ready to mount that argument myself). Trying to add to that list is just looking for trouble.

Then there's the behind-the-camera considerations. The Tragedy of Macbeth is the first film that Joel Coen has directed without the collaboration of his brother Ethan, bringing an end (maybe temporarily, but I'm not holding my breath) to a 34-year creative partnership that created, for my tastes, the single most admirable body of work in American cinema over the last 40 years. It's also the first time Joel Coen has worked from a screenplay he didn't write - yes, sure, he gets a credit for adapting William Shakespeare, but as usual in such cases, that just means he's cut out chunks of the text and mildly rearranged what's left, he didn't write any dialogue, and dialogue is sort of the whole point of a Coen movie.* Though that's just the thing, it's now unclear what "a Coen movie" even is, and it's very hard to imagine that The Tragedy of Macbeth is setting a precedent that's going to last beyond this one picture.

All of that baggage makes it uncommonly tough for me to know what to do with any of this, but might as well start with that first question: why in God's name do we need another Macbeth? There's a lazy auteurist answer, which is that Macbeth is the Shakespeare play that fits in the most nicely with Coen's earlier films: it's about two people who are smart enough to have deluded themselves into thinking they're much smarter, and whose wonderful plan to better their lives goes apocalyptically wrong when their capacity for plotting is outstripped by reality. And then it's, well, apocalyptic, filled with a sense that everything bad has already been locked into place and there's nothing to do but wait for doom to slam into you like a locomotive; it's not an accident that the title of this version goes out of its way to remind us that it's The Tragedy of Macbeth, tragic not in the sense of "sad", but in the sense that suffering is inevitable when people fail to rise above their flaws. The Coen brothers loved making tragedies, in this sense; everything from Barton Fink to Fargo to The Man Who Wasn't There to Inside Llewyn Davis is basically tragic. So why not just go straight to the writer who assuredly remains the English language's preeminent tragedian?

Anyway, lazy auteurism is not, I think, a productive path to take into The Tragedy of Macbeth. To hear Coen talk about it, his main goal was to shift the energy and psychological mood of the material by reconceiving the Macbeths as people on the far side of middle age, and to that end, they have been cast with Denzel Washington (65 years old at the time production started, and working with Coen for the first time) and Frances McDormand (62 years and certainly not working with Coen for the first time). If that was truly the goal of this project, I think it misses the mark, quite badly; in fact, I don't think The Tragedy of Macbeth really, actually is up to much of anything interesting as a production of the play at all. Washington and McDormand aren't helping on that front: he's pretty good, but he mostly deals with line deliveries through fast-talking and mumbling; she's just "doing a McDormand", only now she's doing it in iambic pentameter, which is a bizarre fit for her customary baggy naturalism.

Anyway, I don't think The Tragedy of Macbeth is a terribly interesting version of Macbeth, but I think that's actually because being an interesting version of Macbeth isn't one of its priorities - maybe it was one of Joel Coen's priorities, but that doesn't mean it has to be the film's. And so: why in God's name another Macbeth? Maybe for the exact reason that there was absolutely no way in hell that this was ever going to be the best filmed version of the play, not when Throne of Blood exists, and then doubly so when so much of this film is working overtime to remind us of Throne of Blood (there are staging concepts that barely even try to hide their debt to that film). The Tragedy of Macbeth knows there have been definitive filmed versions of the play; it has no interest in trying to be another, and in fact ends up barely feeling like a filmed version of the play at all. It is, I think, more of a mood piece, a fantasia on Macbeth if you will, where since it takes for granted that we know the story in some detail, it doesn't bother with the work of actually telling it with any particular clarity or insight. Instead, it uses the play, or at least Joel Coen's impression of the play, as the fuel for an exercise in using "pure" film form to create a series of emotional states. Another way of putting it: Frances McDormand isn't at all a great Lady Macbeth, but she is a phenomenal "Frances McDormand's face used as the visualisation of the feeling Lady Macbeth should be making you feel right now".

Still another way of putting it: this is a formal exercise using Shakespeare as its subject matter much more so than it's an attempt to "do Shakespeare", so no wonder I love it. In this respect, it is perhaps closest, among all previous Macbeths, to Tarr Béla's 1982 telefilm, which similarly seems to care more about the question "what are we doing when we make a movie of Shakespeare?" than it is about the play text per se. Coen's formalism is of a very, very different sort than Tarr's, of course; basically, he's doing the play as German Expressionism, rather blatantly so, using what I might be tempted to call at least the most studious neo-Expressionist aesthetic of anything made since the golden age of 1930s horror films. In this case, it's a kind of Expressionism+, with the plus coming in the form of the film's soundtrack, a combination of dead silence interrupted by terrifying echoes and rhythmic booms, a minimalist-maximalism that makes the very air seem to vibrate with fatalistic dread.

Bringing along many of the key figures who made so many films from the Coen Brothers days such awesomely impeccable formal objects, The Tragedy of Macbeth has assembled about as good a team of artists as you will get to create something ultra-stylized in the United States in the 2020s: costume designer Mary Zophres, set director Nancy Haigh, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, sound editor Skip Lievsay, sound designer Craig Berkey, composer Carter Burwell. The only mostly new name to the Coen fold is Stefan Dechant (who was part of the art department on 2010's True Grit), the production designer, whose previous work doesn't remotely predict what he's getting up to here, though since what he's getting up to here is effectively unprecedented in modern American filmmaking, I'm not sure who else might have been a more obvious choice.

In keeping with the Expressionist approach, The Tragedy of Macbeth is almost exclusively populated with soundstages that look unmistakably like soundstages, setpieces that are practically devoid of any detail other than basic geometry and lines, flattened into shapes and blocks of light and dark by Delbonnel's breathtakingly gorgeous, severely digital black-and-white cinematography (in the wonderfully boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, no less, which doesn't seem to have been a strictly necessary artistic choice, but it leads to such bracing compositions that I would not for any reason want it to go away). The exteriors look blatantly theatrical, with flat spaces given a vague illusion of more depth by pumping them full of fog, though every time a castle or trees emerge through the mist "in the distance", the illusion is immediately crushed: we are looking at enclosed spaces with no reality to them, and the film refuses to pretend otherwise.

So on the one hand, we have excessive theatricality, returning Macbeth firmly to its origins on the stage; but then the way the film engages with its theatrical space is intensely, excessively cinematic. The editing, in particular, is so fluid and quick that the whole movie feels like it's constantly shivering and squirming out of one's grasp; Coen and Lucian Johnston (an assistant editor on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs given a promotion to replace Joel's former co-editor and brother) keep dancing around spaces, jumping in to catch brief moments of performance and then darting away to distant angles that reduce the characters to elements in jarring, imbalanced compositions. I would not be inclined to say that The Tragedy of Macbeth cares too much about character work compared to things like atmosphere and dread and terrible beauty, but sometimes there are scenes that do subtle and wonderful things with carefully placing reaction shots to guide us right into the hearts and brains of the characters (there's an especially great moment where judicious use of McDormand in close-up creates a potent rift between the Macbeths over the question of why they never had children). And characters are often granted subjectivity, sometimes very powerful and shocking subjectivity, to anchor the film's plunge into raw expressions of dark emotions.

And when I grouse that the acting and characterisations seem "off", I mostly just mean that they're not "Shakespearean", not that they're bad. Only one performance really struck me as opening up the writing and find a way to make the language alive and vibrant; I am a little loath to say whose it is, given that it's such a wonderful little treat when he shows up. So we'll just go with: this film actually makes the Porter laugh-out-loud funny, and any time Shakespearean humor is funny, something went unusually right.

The acting is, however, generally right for this film, which is after all mostly about channeling the bleak energies of the nightmare angles and stark graphic lines of the Expressionistic compositions into human-scaled moods. In that light, Washington's nervous, mumbly, inward-turned Macbeth is a pretty terrific choice, bringing modern neuroticism into play (I remain a little unsure if I feel great about McDormand's Lady Macbeth). Alex Hassell's serpentine Ross helps focus this adaptation's greatly expanded use of that character on his dangerous unpredictability and predatory instincts. Best of all - by a whole lot, actually, and maybe even my favorite screen performance of 2021 - Kathryn Hunter's performance of the three weird sisters, often all residing in a single body, is a remarkable mixture of extreme bodily contortions and slight but powerful shifts in her voice as she has conversations with herself, aided by the editing and her twitchy physicality. It's equal parts Andy Serkis's Gollum, J-horror ghost, and visual art, rendering her body as a shape to be manipulated into compositions as a striking, unnervingly organic contrast to the strong geometric spaces she's placed into.

It's one of the most genuinely uncanny screen performances I have ever seen, and insofar as The Tragedy of Macbeth succeeds in recasting this material as surreal, psychological horror - and I am quite happy to suggest that it does so - Hunter's presence is at the heart of how it does so. Whether it's in the best interest of Macbeth to reduce its study of the hunger for power corrupting a weak man into a "you can't stop what's coming" nightmare of muddy grey spaces sliced apart by prisons of black lines, and the sounds of almost literal doom echoing across the soundtrack; I cannot say. It makes for a hell of a movie though, one of the most robust and exciting I've seen in these last two dismal years, and while nothing about it feels like a "Coen movie" to me other than its merciless formal control, I can life very happily with the hope that this is what Joel can keep doing as a solo act.

*Admittedly, most of No Country for Old Men is basically just transcribing Cormac McCarthy's novel into screenplay format. But at least McCarthy's clipped, stylised dialogue feels broadly Coenesque. Elizabethan iambic pentameter does not.