It's my favorite movie image of 2021: Frances McDormand stands on a distant cliff, viewed from below, with a storm-clouded sky behind her and wind blowing her long hair back, so it's parallel to the ground beneath her.
That stylized moment comes from "The Tragedy of Macbeth," which has hundreds of them. Working without brother Ethan and with someone else's dialogue for the first time (the original script from William Shakespeare is thoughtfully pared back), St. Louis Park native Joel Coen counters by creating what may be the year's most visually distinctive movie.
Shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel in black and white on studio sets that are ostentatiously fake, "Tragedy" resembles the "Macbeth" that silent film pioneer F.W. Murnau ("Sunrise") might have made back in the 1920s if he had access to sound. It even has the almost-square frame that silents used.
Trees, hills, a castle — everything appears to have been re-created in a studio, with moody, expressionistic lighting adding to the unreality. And the interiors, with long tunnels, winding passages, high ceilings, towering staircases and cold, white walls, make it look like Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth live in the Walker Art Center.
The idea seems to be not to fight against the theatricality of Shakespeare's language but to accentuate it. There's no pretense that we're watching anything other than a play, no tension created by material that can seem awkward in the usual realistic medium of film, and that encourages us to go with the flow of this story of an ambitious Scottish general and his wife, whose bloody power play backfires big-time.
I love the clarity and simplicity with which McDormand — whose training was in theater and who still does it often — tackles Shakespeare's language. This "Tragedy" is set in the past but McDormand's modern approach reminds us that political scheming knows no era. She's well-matched with Denzel Washington.
Washington's Macbeth isn't the dastardly villain we sometimes see in "Macbeths" but a weary man whose time seems to have run out, which makes him susceptible to the ambitions of his still ferocious wife. Even during Macbeth's brief moments of triumph, there is something defeated in Washington's eyes, as if he already knows what's to come. It also could be because of the "double, double, toil and trouble" Three Witches, who warned him and who are played by terrifying scene-stealer Kathryn Hunter.
The witches are associated with crows, which recur throughout the "Tragedy," including the opening image and the stunning final one. They may represent death, evil or fate. They constantly fly overhead and even into Macbeth's home, probably to tell him — as the title tells us — "Dude, this whole thing was over before it even began."
'The Tragedy of Macbeth'
***1/2 out of 4 stars
Rated: R for violence.
Where: Area theaters. On Apple TV Plus Jan. 14.