Joel Coen’s wayward ‘Tragedy of Macbeth’ saved by its elite acting

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Dan Buffa, Special For The Jewish Light

Imagine you’re a Scottish lord taking a nice stroll on a rather foggy morning when you suddenly come across three mysterious witches in your path. They mutter a set of words that entices you yet also frightens at the same time: through a series of events, mostly wicked, you will become the king of Scotland. Are you in or out, folks? For the record, I would run the other way and never look back but if all movie characters did that, the theaters would be quite empty.

Joel Coen

Joel Coen, one half of the Jewish writer/director team that has been making movies in Hollywood for over 40 years, broke off from his brother Ethan to make this adaptation of classic Shakespearian material. It makes enough sense. A tale of a noble lord being turned by the idea of power is right up the Coen alley of dread and self-torture, themes that they have sought after for a long time in their work. But what makes this movie magnetic are the performances that Coen elicits from his cast.

In order for this dialogue, styled and layered with playwright deception, to work, you need that elite caliber of acting. Suffice to say, Coen’s crew here delivers the goods. Played by Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are sensible yet ambitious people, the kind of souls who have brushed up against opportunity yet never touched it in their time. Their interactions with the king (Brendan Gleeson, always good) are cordial yet open-ended, as if something could change their relationship. But in this world, you can trust nobody–not even Macduff (a nice turn by Corey Hawkins).

Washington and McDormand

Without chewing through material or simply hamming the words up, Washington and McDormand find a way to crawl inside characters that don’t sit solely on the side of good or bad. You understand their plight but know full well where they are headed if certain decisions are made. Washington uses that devilish charm to lure us in, while McDormand’s cunning gaze never leaves our minds for long. By getting two of the best in the game to play two of the most complex characters in literary history, Coen assured himself of a good movie.

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But is it great? That’s where my struggle begins. First, I have never fallen head over heels for Shakespeare’s world of ideas. In a way, everything in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is rather predictable and staged. We know how people are going to bend, and that leaves little to the imagination–outside of how a particular character will be dispatched. While the first half of Coen’s tale is intoxicating, that starts to wear off once the moral wine is spelt. For a filmmaker who is taking his first steps as a sole distributor of make-believe, this theater is harder to love than merely admire. The second half becomes a cascading series of events that the viewer knows all too well: a power trip for the ages.

Wanting More

For some, that’s fine. But for me, I was left wanting more out of this big award-time swing. Stuffed into the middle of 5-6 other screenings last month, this one didn’t stand out as much as “C’mon C’mon” or “Mass” when it came time to publish the review. Certain movies marinate into better, more favorable waters while others disappear into the murk due to a missing element.

While “The Tragedy of Macbeth” does have plenty going for it (including a great turn from Kathryn Hunter), it doesn’t have that magical aspect that carries it above the rest in its field. Washington and McDormand soak the most grit out of their roles and lift the film up during their scenes together, but even their magic isn’t enough to label Coen’s film elite.

Maybe it’s the fact that I wanted to scream at Macbeth to run far away from Hunter’s witches. But then, there wouldn’t be a movie to discuss. Thanks to some fine acting and bold cinematography (the entire film is shot in desolate black and white), I recommend taking a ride with this “Tragedy.” Just don’t expect “Hamlet” greatness here.

While I liked Joel Coen’s first attempt at going at it alone, I hope his next foray sits higher than a mere tragedy.