In The Tragedy of Macbeth, long-time Hollywood presence Joel Coen — who has 18 prior films to his credit — takes sole creative control of a project for the first time. The result, not unlike the tale of Macbeth itself, is a tragedy of epic proportions.
In the interest of full disclosure, my editor has requested that I mention that I was Mr. Coen’s writing partner, producer, and creative collaborator on the aforementioned 18 films. I am also his brother. We parted ways prior to Macbeth in a split that the press described as completely amicable. Despite my prior association with Mr. Coen, I feel that I am entirely capable of reviewing his work in a fair and objective way.
Macbeth is Joel Coen’s shittiest movie by several billion light years. If all the elephants in all the world crapped into the same canyon for 100 years, you would still not have a pile of shit half a large as Joel Coen’s dumb-as-a-dog-dick rendering of this classic tale. One can’t watch Macbeth without getting the sense that something is missing; some inspired element that gave Mr. Coen’s earlier work an aura of ebullient genius is absent this time. The wit, verve, and undeniable rugged machismo that characterized the other 18 films in which he happened to be involved are nowhere to be found here. Ultimately, one must conclude that what’s lacking is talent itself.
Consider the very decision to adapt Macbeth. The choice belies deep insecurity; Mr. Coen seems, on some level, to understand that he has the talent God gave a balloon full of piss, and therefore needs to latch onto more talented artists like a lamprey sucking the life out of a majestic blue whale. A less insecure director might have been satisfied with a less esteemed piece of intellectual property, but Mr. Coen glommed onto perhaps the best known play by the world’s most renowned playwright in a move that screams “HELP! THE NO TALENT POLICE ARE RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER! PLEASE, SOMEONE RESCUE ME BEFORE I’M EXPOSED AS A FRAUD WHO SOMEHOW FELL ASS-FIRST INTO A MOVIE CAREER!”
If the decision to take on Macbeth suggests that Mr. Coen is a sad wannabe flailing for credibility, the choice to film in black-and-white proves the case beyond any reasonable doubt. In a move that would get you kicked out Film 101 at the DeVry Institute of Mediocrity, Mr. Coen renders the Bard’s tale in black-and-white using a 4:3 aspect ratio, as if that alone makes you Akira fucking Kurosawa. Though black-and-white can occasionally be an inspired choice — 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There comes to mind — the only way in which this gambit might have been anything other than a desperately pretentious ploy is that it’s possible that Mr. Coen was simply too dumb to know that color film exists. Or, perhaps he thought “Hmm — Shakespeare’s old, black-and-white is old…I’ll film in black-and-white, just like they did back in Shakespeare times!”
Mr. Coen’s obvious hackery drags the actors down. Denzel Washington delivers a fiery performance, but it’s worth noting that Mr. Washington makes fun of Joel behind his back and says that he walks funny. One would think that Frances McDormand might deliver the performance of a lifetime, considering that she — much like Lady Macbeth — is married to a deceitful loser who can only get ahead by cheating (Joel Coen). And yet, McDormand is far from her best. She’s been excellent before; she was great in Fargo, outstanding in That One Where She Shits in a Bucket, and brilliant last Thanksgiving when we were playing Cranium and she and I got all the “Star Performer” ones, like, immediately. One can only assume that she was dragged down by the oppressive weight of being married to a man whom all the kids used to call “Soggy Bottom Joel” because of the time he got diarrhea on the monkey bars.
If one looks closely, signs that this abomination was coming from Mr. Coen were there. Few hints can be found in his film work — some benevolent force was clearly papering over his incompetence — but anyone familiar with Mr. Coen’s long-established patterns of behavior could see that this was due. The Tragedy of Macbeth is the work of a fraud and a narcissist, a man who deceives others to serve his own needs. These habits don’t emerge, fully formed, in adults; they can be found in childhood. Early childhood. For example: September 1963, when I happen to know that Mr. Coen borrowed a Lite Brite that a family member just gotten for his birthday, and then fucking broke it, and blamed it on the dog. And he didn’t even get in trouble for it!
Consider what total bullshit that is. This family member had just gotten that Lite Brite. And I don’t mean “just got a month ago”, or “just got last week” — I mean literally just got earlier that day. The unnamed family member hadn’t even really gotten to play with it yet — he’d done one pattern (choo-choo train) during the day in the kitchen where it’s sunny, which barely even counts. He let Joel borrow the Lite Brite even though Joel never let him borrow his Frank Gifford Electric Football game, because Joel is a mean jerk. Then Joel broke the fucking Lite Brite and blamed it on Mandy, as if a King Charles Spaniel can put a hole in a Lite Brite exactly the size and shape of a human foot. Besides: I fucking heard you jump off the top bunk and go “OOWWW!”, and then you limped around all day like a total dork! I can’t believe Mom and Dad bought your story. Although, I guess I actually can, because you’re Little Mister Perfect who always gets his way.
In summary: Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is a bowl full of lizard jizz from history’s greatest sociopath. One wonders if a UN Resolution calling for the phrase “ART HOUSE HACK” to be forcibly tattooed on Mr. Coen’s forehead might be called for. Joel Coen has so thoroughly put his foot through this “piece of art” that it’s really more of a “piece of FART”, but this time, he can’t blame his fuckup on the dog.
My rating: 1/2 a smashed Lite Brite out of five
(For the lawyers: This was a bit. Ethan Coen had nothing to do with it.)