Part III Denzel Washington and Francis McDormand
Denzel Washington is almost seventy years old. He has been a Hollywood star for decades. He has stared in comedies (Carbon Copy with George Segal), a host of second rate murder mysteries, westerns (The Magnificent Seven, 2016), thrillers (Mississippi Masala and The Taking of Pelham – 2009 and a repeat version in Unstoppable, 2010), science fiction (The Book of Eli, 2010), crimes stories (The Pelican Brief, 1993), action movies (The Mighty Quinn), what I regard as his best roles in historical dramas (as Steve Bilko in the 1987 film, Cry Freedom, Malcom X in Spike Lee’s 1992 movie by the same name, the 1999 movie about the boxer, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter wrongly convicted of murder – The Hurricane, the 1993 movie staring Tom Hanks where Denzel played Tom Hanks’ homophobic lawyer in Philadelphia, the psychodrama, which he also directed, Antwone Fisher, as drug lord, Frank Lucas, in American Gangster – 2007, and as Professor Melvin Tolson, the Texas debating coach in the 2007 movie The Great Debaters), a myriad of police dramas (the 1999 movie The Bone Collector, Training Day, 2001), war films (Glory), and musical dramas (Mo’ Better Blues). Lately, his forte seems to have been police detectives, FBI agents and CIA operatives. However, I missed him in Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearian comedy, Much Ado About Nothing (1993). After watching him in Macbeth, I vowed to go back and watch that film.
I do not know and cannot count how many other shlocky films that I did not see in which Denzel Washington appeared. But his versatility is legendary. However, I could never have imagined him as Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Fortunately, Joel Coen with his genius did.
Denzel gives Shakespeare’s poetic and high-minded language a colloquial tone. Instead of bravura and bombast, we watch a man twisting on his own petard of psychological conflict. Macbeth may be both a war hero and a serial killer in this movie, but it is the internal workings of his mind that fascinate Shakespeare, Coen and Washington. Denzel Washington’s lines are delivered in a restrained, even hesitant, manner rather than a tone full of bluster and braggadocio. Shakespeare’s language may be grandiloquent, but Denzel allows the magniloquence to emerge much more forcefully and clearly through the use of restraint and introspection. Rather than a man living in the glory of his achievements, Denzel’s Macbeth is a man wearied by war and conflict, but driven to repeat his fighting acuity by an unbridled and little understood ambition. In a context stressing mood and mystique, symbolism and sensitivity, we watch a close-up of a hero who turns into a mad dog.
In his first and pivotal murder, we watch Denzel’s boots as he marches down a long corridor with the stomping echoing through the emptiness. We see a line of vertical light on a doorway at the end of the hall. Before we can discern what we are viewing, Macbeth asks whether what he sees is a blade. And, as we come closer, we perceive that the sliver of light is indeed a knife that serves as the handle to open the door to the king’s bedchamber. Denzel will use that handle-knife to slit Duncan’s throat as he sleeps.
How does one combine masculinity and might with psychological feebleness, power with impotence in the grasp of fate which has taken one prisoner? That is a very hard act to pull off. And Denzel Washington succeeds superbly. Instead of mud and grit, instead of fields of dead bodies, we observe a great man disintegrating before our eyes.
Frances McDormand is his prefect partner. For it isn’t the lust for power that drives the pair. They seem to have no idea of what to do with the power they have once acquired. Instead, what we see is ambition for position in which power evaporates like the water on the floor of the castle that serves as the witches’ cauldron. Instead of fractures and floundering, the players became wearier and wearier and more broken and fragmented with their achievement. Not because it has not been enormous. But because the victory has been hollow, without purpose or meaning. Even the plan for blaming the courtiers of Duncan goes awry when, in a supposed fit of passion, Macbeth murders them. Instead of displacing the blame, Duncan’s sons, Malcolm (who looks like Steve Lewis did in high school) and Donalbain quickly grasp the source of the mayhem and flee for their lives.
I remember Frances McDormand as the pregnant cop, Marge Gunderson, in the early Coen film Blood Simple (1984) where she plays the role of an unfaithful wife of a murderer, as the lead pregnant detective in the very famous Coen film, Fargo (1996), as Mrs. Pell the interpreter of the source of prejudice in Mississippi Burning (1988), as Elaine Miller as the protective but threatening mother of a young prodigy, the smart, good-hearted fifteen-year-old rock journalist in the story of the young boy who becomes a journalist for Rolling Stone in Almost Famous (2000), as Jane in another rock-era film as a libertine mother and ’60s-era record producer past her prime who nurses a band to stardom In Laurel Canyon (2002), as the unfaithful wife of a barber determined to become a fraudster in Joel Coen’s 2001 film, The Man Who Wasn’t There, as the self-appointed detective to solve her daughter’s murder in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, as part of an ensemble cast in both Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and in his stop-motion animated fiction comedy Isle of Dogs (2018), alongside Matt Damon as Sue Thomason, a silver-tongued gas company land buyer who has little time for any relationship in the story of heartless corporate America in Promised Land (2012), and in North Country (2005) which we just rewatched where she played a supporting role as a female miner dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease who becomes the main psychological supporter for Charlize Theron who plays the standout role as the leader in the first class-action sexual harassment case in US judicial history.
Frances McDormand played the van dwelling nomad in Nomadland (2020) who lost everything in the Great Depression. These are all realist rather than symbolic roles, but rich in nuance and subtlety. Frances McDormand usually plays an earthy woman grounded in everyday life. Who could have imagined her as Lady Macbeth? Presumably, only she and her husband, Joel Coen. How fortunate we are that we have been enabled to watch this enormous and very successful stretch. Though sometimes deep in a swamp of corruption, more usually she stands for decency and determination set against a “valhalla of decadence.” In The Tragedy of Macbeth, she becomes the central decadent figure.
In The Tragedy of Macbeth, we watch two characters melting before our eyes as they disintegrate in a fate they cannot reverse. They both become mad – not just Lady Macbeth. They remain in consort even in their insanity. Inevitability and insignificance are married against a backdrop of magnificence and heroism. For such a psychological drama, the film is uncompromisingly physical. It is not only their minds that fall apart, but their bodies. Lady Macbeth’s hair begins to fall out. From an elegant and self-confident woman, she herself becomes a frazzled hag. And McDormand manages the transition with a depth of intensity and subtlety that is almost incomprehensible.
How can one be both regal and so fragile? Because both leads are also older and very experienced actors rather than relatively young and vigorous thirty-year-olds. Frances McDormand’s histrionic range is deliberately kept in check. The deicide is a last gasp rather than the first outrageous step in a long march towards power. The frames are cold and stark. The score echoes and haunts. The past imprisons the present and condemns the future. It is the first and only time that I have seen Macbeth where the depth of the psychological force emerges with such unrepentant fury.
The film opens with clouds and birds (witches) emerging from not only those clouds, but from the audience as if we were watching a Hitchcock thriller at the same time. For we must be part of the psychodrama being created. This is NOT an action movie in spite of a culminating fight scene on the castle walls. An individual treks across a snow-covered field and it is not where he comes from or even where he is going that counts so much as the tracks he leaves behind. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand allow us to follow those tracks, step by weary step, until their last moment of recorded time. And they keep in step, locked together in both love and madness, supportive of each other in their doomed journey.