Coen’s ‘Tragedy of Macbeth’ full of sound and fury, signifies nothing

The film reveals the director as a master of his craft but to what end?

Brad Keefe
"The Tragedy of Macbeth"

“It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

That’s my favorite quote from “Macbeth,” which doesn’t make me especially deep or special. It’s a common favorite.

And watching Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” I greatly appreciated the craftsmanship and the fact that this tale was not, in fact, being told by an idiot. Quite the opposite. But I also couldn’t help — as I deeply enjoyed it as an absolute filmmaking masterclass — hovering on those last two words: signifying nothing.

Sometimes I can really enjoy a film and also ask myself at the end, what was the point?

Coen’s film got a limited theatrical release on Christmas before dropping last week on Apple TV, a clear moment of Oscar bait for a streaming service still grasping for content and clout. And it’s quite likely to get multiple Oscar nominations, and they’re quite well deserved. And yet I still don’t quite know what the point was.

Let’s start with the good, because the good is brilliant, and what makes “The Tragedy of Macbeth” well worth your time even if you aren’t an Oscar nominee completist.

Almost everyone starts with the astonishing work of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and with good reason. The French cinematographer (who shot “Amélie,” no less) is at the height of the craft. Every frame is gorgeous, beautifully staged and shot masterfully but not obtrusively. It’s stark black-and-white and shot on 4:3 aspect ratio, which means, on your home TV, you’ll get black bars. It’s even curved on the edges.

This use of ratio is delivered more expertly than Zack Snyder’s “Justice League” director’s cut, which was the absolute height of using this ratio poorly.

It’s so visually magnificent, it would feel perfectly at home being projected on a coffee shop wall with the sound off and subtitles on, and I mean that as a compliment.

Here comes the hot take: Coen actually made a mistake in casting two of the most talented and definitive actors of our generation in the leads.

Denzel Washington plays Macbeth. Frances McDormand plays Lady Macbeth. This could not look better on paper. McDormand is also Coen’s wife of nearly four decades, but it’s hardly a case of Hollywood nepotism when you’re a great director married to one of the great actresses of our time. 

And Denzel is… c’mon, it’s Denzel. He single-handedly makes good movies great and bad movies good. He’s high in the conversation for the greatest actors of all time.

But this is also what makes their inclusion a bit puzzling, especially among a talented cast in which they’re the only household names. Both are great, as always, but neither is revelatory. And, oddly enough, they tend to take the viewer out of the immersion in a way that actually made me wish Coen had cast some seasoned stage actors that were not as known to film buffs.

It is an emergent moment for the rising Corey Hawkins, who steals as Macduff. And, oh my, Kathryn Hunter, collectively portraying Shakespeare’s trio of witches, is incredible.

Coen (directing without his usual partner and younger brother, Ethan) goes bold with the starkness of it all, showcasing magnificently crafted sets and shots in a scoreless film that feels like a stage play from every carefully staged angle.

I came away from it appreciating the craft but feeling a bit hollow. It signified more than nothing, but not a whole lot more than a likely slate of Oscar nominations.

“Ted Lasso” fans and Apple TV subscribers, please do me a solid and make sure you watch “CODA” before you watch this. But watch them both.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth”

Now playing in theaters and streaming on Apple TV

3 stars out of 5