How The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) Creates a (Sub)liminal Space
The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), a black-and-white film adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic horror tragedy, toes the line between theater and cinema to produce a stunning revitalization of the 400-year-old play. The film preserves Macbeth’s timeless tale of insanity while enhancing its presentation through modern cinema techniques, particularly in its use of VFX. Both the narrative and the mode of storytelling leave us disoriented and as out-of-touch as its protagonists.
Since its limited movie release in December 2021, followed by a streaming release on AppleTV+ in January 2022, The Tragedy of Macbeth has received several accolades, including Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, Best Production Design, and Best Cinematography. Its favorable reception is in large part due to its director: Joel Coen. Brother Ethan Coen sits this one out, but Joel is joined by his wife, Frances McDormand. McDormand dual wields the roles of co-producer and lead actress. The Lord Macbeth to her Lady is the legendary Denzel Washington. Both leads give incredible, fatalistic performances that capture the essence of Shakespeare’s insane power (trip) couple. Preserving the Shakespearean language means watching The Tragedy of Macbeth with subtitles is a must. However, even if you find yourself tripping over the words, the impassioned performances and eye-catching visuals carry the senses.
Coen’s Macbeth is a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s original production. We follow Lord and Lady Macbeth as they buy into a prophecy, delivered by three witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter), that promises Macbeth to be King of Scotland. Their obsession leads them to murder the current King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) and later Macbeth’s trusted ally Banquo (Bertie Carvel). The blood of their misdeeds stains their hands, driving them to madness. Lady Macbeth buckles under the weight of their actions and takes her own life. Lord Macbeth, however, continues his tyranny and is further fueled when he is visited by the witches again. But cursed by his psychosis, he fails to grasp the true meaning of their second premonition, leaving him vulnerable to the blade of his rival, Macduff (Corey Hawkins).
The film feels like a quintessential A24 film. Macbeth’s recurring avian motif had me frequently double-checking I hadn’t put The Lighthouse (2019) on by mistake. This is not an insult by any means; just like Robert Eggers’s bizarre psychological horror, Coen’s Macbeth portrays the descent of the human psyche through stark monochromatic imagery.
Said imagery is cultivated meticulously. Coen and his team exert control over every aspect of the production, having produced the film on a soundstage with focused theater light and CGI manipulation. As opposed to the typical 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, the narrative is tightly contained through the framing in Academy ratio of 1.37:1, meaning the camera zeroes in on our protagonists and grants them greater presence on the screen. The black-and-white element is quite literally threaded into the project, with costuming and set design purposely monochromatic. Cydney Cornell, head of the hair department on Macbeth, said the aim was to “have shadows and reflection” to account for the lack of color contrast. Unsurprisingly, shadows and reflections are recurring motifs in the film. We see Macbeth cast in shadow the morning after killing his king: an overwhelming darkness that is soon to consume him. We see the witches’ reflection during their opening premonition: a doubling that calls the identifiable self into question. We see moral decay and loss of identity through these methods.
The mirroring, sharp contrasts, and general stillness to the production work to develop liminality: the threshold between sense and nonsense. Macbeth presents an in-between world. The (super)natural environment the story exists within, and the (in)human constructions that occupy it, are vaguely familiar. They’re the kind of surrealist visuals that come to us in dreams—or nightmares. Cold, austere castle walls surround us while a gaping sky of gray, home to a blot of blinding sun peeking through murky clouds, yawns open above us. The black-and-white creates distance between narrative and audience; where color breeds passion and life, shades of gray breed apathy.
Visuals, created by VFX company East Side Effects, were created by blending 3D computer-rendered models with physical matte paintings. Fog and smoke effects help obfuscate what we do see, allowing the computer-generated visuals and the physical set pieces to blur together as one, lending well to the narrative’s theme of distortion. This layering of CGI creates an inescapable uncanniness that asks us to buy in, though we know it just isn’t right.
The liminality extends to the film’s two title cards: “WHEN” directly at the start, and “TOMORROW” right before the witches’ second prophecy to Macbeth. This separation creates an ambiguous “present.” The when is of the past, but tomorrow is yet to come. So where are we left? Is there a now to occupy? Without any concrete time frame, we explore time and space in a fugue state. We cannot find our waking selves while watching Macbeth unfold. We instead let cold, clammy hands guide us to some unseen place, where its vastness feels like a prison. And while our psyche first begs to let us out—out, damned spot!—we may find ourselves wading through, drowning, in the (sub)liminal waters of this limitless world of Coen’s creation.