Macbeth is a Christmas movie

When the hurly burly's done, when the battle's lost and won, when all your presents are opened, go see Joel Coen's 'Macbeth'

Denzel Washington.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock, Netflix)

Nothing gets you in the Christmas spirit quite like a 15th-century play featuring witches, regicide, ghosts, both attempted and successful child murder, suicide, and the disembodied thumb of a sailor ... which no doubt is why A24 is releasing The Tragedy of Macbeth in theaters on the seasonally appropriate date of Dec. 25.

Though a Coen brother film (yes, singular; this is Joel Coen's first directorial feature without his brother, Ethan), the latest adaptation of Macbeth is not the satirical take on the Scottish play one might've expected from the co-creator of Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Nor is this dark rendition of what was already one of William Shakespeare's bleakest works arriving two months late for Halloween. Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth is actually a strangely great Christmas movie.

Christmas is one of the biggest box office days of the year, and American audiences have plenty of options for escaping from our families this holiday season: West Side Story, Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Matrix Resurrections, Encanto, and Licorice Pizza are just a few of the marquee choices currently or soon to be in theaters. But none of these are Christmas movies. And while it lacks snow, Santa Claus, Bruce Willis, and all the other standard "Christmas movie" tropes, The Tragedy of Macbeth is — at least if you're willing to accept that, for many centuries and in many traditions, Noël was a little spookier than it is today.

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Falling as it does at the end of December, Christmastime coincides with the winter solstice, the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. That — plus some liberal Interpretatio Christiana of older pagan celebrations — has produced some pretty creepy holiday folklore over the centuries. There's the utterly terrifying Krampus, a sidekick of St. Nicholas who supposedly torments children in Alpine nations, and the Welsh wassailing custom of the Mari Lwyd, a decorated horse skull that is carried at night from house to house. "Christmas witches," in particular, seem to pop up all over northern Europe. In Norway, it's a custom to hide broomsticks lest an unwanted thief wants to take flight on Christmas Eve. It's no wonder Christmas horror movies have emerged as their own subgenre.

Though Macbeth takes place at an undefined time of year (in fact, the play's first stage direction, "thunder and lightning," suggests it's probably slightly too warm to snow upon the "blasted heath"), Coen interprets the castle at Inverness as a cold, austere, and foreboding place. The percussive dripping of water echoes in the empty halls, and the white sun is viewed through a perpetual fog. The inky black-and-white cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel and the sharp-edged, German expressionist-inspired production design by Stefan Dechant add to the minimalistic eeriness.

While there are supernatural elements in the film — the inspired rendering of the Weird Sisters, played by Kathryn Hunter, alone makes the movie worth seeing — this isn't "Halloween Macbeth," with literal floating daggers and blood-drenched ghosts. It's a Macbeth reliant instead on psychological darkness where longing and complacency are the real lurking spooks (watch in particular for Coen's interpretation of Ross). Indeed, had A24 released Macbeth in October, audiences may have gone in with the wrong idea and come out disappointed in the lack of jump scares and gore. Timed with the end of the year, however, Macbeth becomes a meditation on how even good people can be corrupted by in the face of temptation a perfect preface for New Year's resolutions, if you want to take them very, very seriously.

Of course, there's another, more commercial reason Macbeth is a Christmas movie: Arriving at the end of the year like this qualifies it for an Oscar run. That puts its Macbeth and Lady Macbeth — played by titans of the craft Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand — in prime position to sweep the year's acting statuettes. Sure, it's shameless strategizing, but Washington and McDormand earn it. As an older-than-typical Lord and Lady Macbeth at ages 66 and 64 respectively (for comparison, James McArdle, 32, and Saoirse Ronan, 27, also just wrapped up playing the couple in London), they bring a particular last-chance desperation to the role that transcends the characters' usual, simpler downfall of youthful ambition.

Admittedly, Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth is unlikely to make it into anyone's annual December movie rotation alongside It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and Elf. But don't wait to watch it after the Oscars at the end of March, when the Earth is thawing into a friendly (maybe post-pandemic) spring. This is a movie for the darkest night of the coldest day of the year, when it's harder to ignore those raw, whispered longings — when fair is foul and foul is fair.

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