The 59th annual New York Film Festival kicks off tonight, and though the typically well-curated Main Slate selection remains the big attraction, the return of in-person screenings is this year’s major development. NYFF, along with most major film festivals, migrated online last year due to a pandemic that made it nerve-wracking to step into the grocery store, let alone a crowded movie theater. Virtual film festivals were a necessary makeshift solution to a devastating health crisis with ruinous economic consequences. By all relevant metrics, last year’s NYFF was an unmitigated success, effectively balancing an online platform with outdoor screenings, all while continuing to bring the best in world cinema to the Tri-State Area.
Many have argued that film festivals should permanently adopt a joint virtual/in-person approach to increase accessibility for vulnerable peoples, especially the disability community. Democratizing access might truly be the best way forward for international festivals. But speaking as someone burnt out on watching rigorous art films on his laptop or television for an entire year, and who is very much craving communal experiences that were once a regular part of life, I’ve welcomed the return of (fully vaccinated and masked) in-person screenings with as much good cheer as I can muster. Early wake-up times and lengthy subway commutes are a welcome trade-off for some semblance of normalcy, which is still in tragically short supply these days.
In fact, the best part of this year’s NYFF so far—aside from the films themselves, of course—has been how typical it feels. Yes, we all have to wear masks inside, but otherwise there’s a comforting, refreshing deja vu to filing into a line of familiar faces, all waiting to catch the latest from auteurs young and old inside the well-preserved Walter Reade Theater, home of NYFF’s press and industry screenings. (Though the venue now sports “an upgraded HVAC system with increased outside air and MERV 13 filtration.”) NYFF has certainly adapted to a changed world, but there’s also a concerted effort on the part of festival organizers and the programming team to maintain an established routine. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
For me, the main difference has been attitudinal. If there’s been any major takeaway from the past 18 months, it’s not to take anything for granted. That includes the obvious, like good health and pleasant company and genuine human connection, and the things that seem frivolous, like the freedom to go watch a movie on the big screen surrounded by friends and strangers alike. It’s tempting to downplay cultural experiences in urgent times, and using overly reverent or romantic language to describe their power can inspire eye rolls even from acolytes such as myself. At the same time, I can’t deny that it’s been gratifying to be back in the swing of things, and a pleasure to watch the latest major films, projected in the highest possible quality, alongside the like-minded. These are things worth treasuring.
Over the next few weeks, I will be covering a small selection of NYFF’s Main Slate, including some highly anticipated titles, like the latest from Wes Anderson, Paul Verhoeven, and Jane Campion, as well as Todd Haynes’ documentary on the Velvet Underground and celebrated Thai filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul’s first English-language feature. And what better way to launch a festival that’s both the same as it ever was and a little bit different than with the very first movie from a Coen brother, singular?
For his first film in over 35 years without Ethan, Joel Coen sought out a Shakespeare classic that has been previously adapted to the screen by the likes of Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Roman Polanski. Still, any Coen fan can recognize Macbeth in much of their work. From Blood Simple through The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, the brothers have routinely made films about crimes gone awry, spilled blood that can’t simply be washed away with water, and fickle men in way over their head desperately hoping their deal with the devil works out. Surreal, borderline supernatural manifestations of evil have also recurred, through wicked men (Raising Arizona’s biker bounty hunter Leonard Smalls, the infamous Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men) and haunted places (the eerie and malevolent Hotel Earle in Barton Fink). While the Coens have imbued their works with dark existential comedy, their films radiate bone-deep dread and cruel fate. In other words, Shakespeare’s bread and butter.
In the past, Joel Coen has defaulted to relatively loose adaptations. So it’s a slight change of pace to see him go so faithful with The Tragedy Of Macbeth, leaving intact both Shakespeare’s language and the play’s original thematic drive. He doesn’t incorporate distracting modern interventions or direct his actors to hew towards contemporary readings of the characters. The play is the play, and Coen never wavers from that directive.
I’m not sure there’s much point in detailing the plot of a 17th-century text that’s been a staple of high school English classes for time immemorial. Rest assured, Joel plays the hits. A royal military man (Denzel Washington) receives a prophecy about his regal prospects from a witch (as singular as Coen in this case, with Kathryn Hunter collapsing the three into one tripartite personality that recalls Andy Serkis’ Gollum). He informs his ruthless wife (Frances McDormand) about his potential future and she helps him scheme to obtain it ahead of schedule. Murder begets more murder and hastily conceived conspiracies quickly double themselves as Lady and Lord Macbeth slowly lose their minds. Invisible daggers are seen, damned spots can’t be outed, and eventually, Scotland gets a new king.
Coen’s reverential respect for the text isn’t stifling. His stripped-down, expressionistic approach to staging feels like a self-conscious throwback to early 20th-century filmmaking, albeit with Bruno Delbonnel’s clean, digital black-and-white photography a far cry from the spooky tactility of B&W celluloid. The Tragedy Of Macbeth exclusively employs sound stages and Coen emphasizes shadows cast by very limited light sources. The entire film has an oneiric quality that recalls the bareness of the stage but nevertheless feels beholden to the history of cinema, specifically the ways in which Weimar-era Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau’s playfully sinister use of light and dark tease out the psychology of their subjects. The return of the witch(es) to reveal the confounding truth of their prophecies in Act IV, for example, has a chilling phantasmic quality: Hunter’s witch makes pronouncements perched above Macbeth, while apparitions appear in a pool of blood-sullied water slowly rising to his ankles.
As with most Shakespeare productions, the main attraction here is the ensemble, which is stellar across the board. From the supporting cast, Bertie Carvel shines as Banquo, bringing a stunning tenderness to the character and communicating a close relationship with Macbeth almost entirely through soft expressions and warm line readings; it’s a heartbreaking moment when his awareness of his friend’s betrayal finally bubbles to the surface. Similarly, Corey Hawkins infuses Macduff with honest anguish as well as righteous, urgent wrath. And Stephen Root briefly steals the film out from under a most impressive cast in his one scene as the Porter, delivering his dialogue at rapid speed and lending the film some outsized, much-needed levity. His performance feels like a cameo from a Coens comedy of yore.
Of course, the quality of the leads remains paramount. McDormand, quite frankly, was born to play Lady Macbeth. She brought it to life on stage in 2016, and though I did not catch her theatrical rendering, I can only imagine we’re seeing at least shades of it in her husband Joel’s production. It’s exciting to watch her shape the character to her strengths, bringing out a humorous smugness and a vacant wickedness crucial to her best performances (sans Marge Gunderson, of course), making it sing in a new-old context.
Meanwhile, Washington brings his trademark charm and bravado to the eponymous Lord, flaunting his power when Macbeth takes the throne in a manner that’s reminiscent of his Oscar-winning turn as Alonzo Harris running roughshod over the Los Angeles streets. At the same time, he also brings refreshing wisdom to the role, conveyed through greying hair as well as subtle, shattered expressions that find new depths in an old tale. Much has been made of Coen’s decision to cast two middle-aged actors as Lord and Lady Macbeth, as many contemporary productions and films have defaulted to younger actors for the leads, with the reasoning that older people tend to be too practical for delusional ambition. But together, Washington and McDormand impart a simpatico intimacy that nevertheless projects a lack of fulfillment that only a throne can resolve. They’re an old couple taking one last stab at what’s rightfully theirs, wise enough to know their actions are folly but young enough at heart to foolishly go through with them anyway.
It’s possible to feel underwhelmed by The Tragedy Of Macbeth if you’re strictly comparing it to past Coen works. This is very much a “straightforward” adaptation, the visual flourishes relegated to scene transitions and some minor effects work. Still, no one goes to a Shakespeare production to be surprised by the story. You want to see what the director does with it. There’s a certain thrill to watching a restrained, “mature” effort from a director whose films have largely exuded a youthful energy, even as his outlook has consistently projected the metaphysical cynicism of adulthood. The Tragedy Of Macbeth feels like a conscious break from the methodology and practice of Joel’s work with Ethan. It’s the work of someone eager to try out new tones and emotional registers—and maybe, some other new collaborators as well.