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  • Naturalism, Determinism and Fate in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Alan Gibbs (bio)

The 2021 film, The Tragedy of Macbeth, marks Joel Coen’s first solo project after several decades of collaboration with his brother Ethan. A striking adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, the film is also a potent engagement with themes and forms pertinent to naturalism. Such an interpretation derives both from the originating play—which engages at a complex level with notions of fate and fatalism—and from Coen’s characteristic preoccupation with determinism, a perennially important component of naturalism. This article begins with a brief survey of the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, emphasizing in particular their numerous earlier engagements with naturalistic themes and forms. Two sections then return to the source material, Shakespeare’s play, assessing how existing scholarship has considered the complex interweaving of fate and determinism in the originating text and its various performances. A fourth section analyzes Joel Coen’s adaptation specifically as an artefact of neonaturalism. A final section discusses the unusually strong emphasis placed on the role of the nobleman Ross in Coen’s version and evaluates the particular significance of this for the film’s naturalist attributes. Building on the scholarship of critics such as Klaus Schmidt, who has noted the pervasiveness of new naturalist tropes in contemporary visual culture, this article demonstrates the increasing complexity with which such ideas and forms manifest. In the particular case of Coen’s Macbeth, I argue that there is a certain hybridity—a typical characteristic of both naturalism and the Coens’ previous work—to the way in which naturalism interacts with forms such as noir and tragedy. [End Page 150]

The Coens and Naturalism

Interpreting the films of the Coen brothers as naturalist would appear to require little justification. Even a superficial examination of their oeuvre reveals strongly deterministic plotting and a persistent theme of the individual—usually an ostensibly ineffectual white man—overwhelmed by events beyond their control. The brothers’ first collaboration, Blood Simple (1984), is a low budget neo-noir, where the plot hinges on repeated misunderstandings between the four main characters, one of whom is played by Joel Coen’s wife and frequent collaborator, Frances McDormand (who plays Lady Macbeth in the film under consideration).1 McDormand’s Abby, in Blood Simple, is an unusual femme fatale in that while she is surrounded by male desire (and deaths), her agency and thus her responsibility for these events is limited. She is the only one of those four characters to survive, ending the film shooting dead the corrupt PI who was seeking to kill her. Even at this juncture, Abby remains under a misapprehension, believing that she is shooting her (in fact already-dead) husband, since her antagonist is at that moment hidden behind a door. This description gives a flavor of the radical nature of the film’s narrative, where characters act on protracted and often mistaken suspicions, and where killing another character is both difficult and prone to failure; like Banquo, characters in Blood Simple are reluctant to remain dead.2 Blood Simple is thus in some ways a parody of film noir’s deterministic plotting, the entire work constructed on a stream of misunderstandings which breed suspicion and paranoia.

The Coens became known for parodying popular cinematic forms in their early career, and perhaps this extends to a parody version of naturalism. Miller’s Crossing (1990), The Big Lebowski (1998), and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), like Blood Simple feature complex, sometimes noirish deterministic plots, albeit with much of the causation again based on misunderstandings. To varying degrees, the films also demonstrate an interest in issues concerned with fate, chance, and determinism. The Man Who Wasn’t There, for example, is a neo-noir parody where deterministic lines take a peculiar direction. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) gets away with the murder of Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini) only for his wife Doris, played by Frances McDormand in another parodic femme fatale role, to be jailed for the crime. Ed is later, however, condemned for a murder previously committed by Big Dave. Comprising a narrative of deliberately banal misunderstandings, the film plays with certain tropes of...