Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” may have a slightly longer title than past adaptations of the Scottish Play, but the movie itself, at 105 minutes, is actually tighter than most. It’s a few minutes shy of Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth” (2015), the most recent major screen adaptation, and more than a half-hour shorter than Roman Polanski’s 1971 film, perhaps the maddest and grisliest of the lot. If Coen’s retelling feels exceptionally fleet, it’s because he has slashed away lines and even passages of Shakespeare’s text with his own Macbeth-like ruthlessness; he distills each sequence to its furious essence. Scenes flow into one another with a swiftness and elegance that builds its own momentum. Rarely have these nightmarish events seemed more inevitable.
The visuals are as stripped down as the words. Coen and his director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel, brilliantly evoke the look of older films with a stark black-and-white palette and a nearly square aspect ratio. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is an astounding piece of movie craftsmanship. It opens in milky white mists and then plunges us into a labyrinth of noir shadows, in which every shaft of light seems perfectly placed to emphasize the minimalist arches-and-tiles geometry of Stefan Dechant’s production design. Even the allusions feel economical; Coen distills entire cinematic histories into the frame. The intense chiaroscuro recalls any number of great directors: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, the Orson Welles who made his own “Macbeth” in 1948. An early scene, set in a tent through which we can see the shadows of gnarled branches, seems to evoke Akira Kurosawa’s masterly 1957 retelling, “Throne of Blood.”
And when the actors step forth from these gloomy expressionist shadows, they often plant themselves center-frame and speak directly to the camera — a choice that feels rooted in both an older era of filmmaking and the earlier traditions of the theater. Like so many films Joel Coen has made with his brother, Ethan, this “Macbeth” — his first purely solo outing as writer-director — feels like a master class in multitasking. It is also, of course, the latest Coen picture to center on a man who acts with foolish abandon and becomes trapped in an ever-expanding disaster of his own making. The chilly Scottish moors we see here truly are no country for old men, the setting for one of our most enduring tales of intolerable cruelty.