The Bard is hard. Adapting William Shakespeare for film is a bit like riding a unicycle while trying to defend your doctorate thesis. Joel Coen, despite being a generational talent behind the camera, took a risk in bringing one of the best known and most significant Shakespeare plays to the big screen, and the brand-new The Tragedy of Macbeth is his first directorial at-bat without his brother Ethan by his side. To borrow a line from a Coens film, would that it were so simple. 

You can’t say The Tragedy of Macbeth whiffs on the aesthetic terror of its source material. Coen speaks a haunting language here, compressing the grand drama of the Scottish Play into tight and suffocating sets. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s stunning black-and-white lensing pays homage to the days of Orson Welles, when that auteur adapted a chunk of Shakespeare’s catalog with austerity and a hint of mischief. 

Coen’s Macbeth feels a bit like a Welles film sprinkled with the hipster terror of an A24 horror movie. Interestingly, the Oscar-winning director’s work here most resembles Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, which used those tight B&W corridors to freak out its landbound seadogs. Coen cast megastar Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand (Coen’s longtime collaborator and wife) as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and of course they’re both excellent. Washington restrains himself just enough to make the big exclamations count, and he nails his character’s seeping guilt and disillusionment after he makes his play for the throne. McDormand gives her Lady Macbeth an icy air — it’s not quite one of her best performances, but she’s still, as always, commanding. 

But this isn’t a particularly accessible interpretation. Sometimes to connect with modern audiences, Shakespeare films need passionate overacting, robust production design, orchestral scores. Those lacking a doctorate in classical literature (most of us) often need a SparkNotes handy to interpret the work, and Coen’s film doesn’t meet us in the middle in that regard. Had he made a bigger, grander movie and engaged the audience with pomp and circumstance, we could feel the emotion of each scene even when the language loses us. 

Perhaps the distant, emotionless approach is to blame. Coen re-creates more than he stages, letting the dialogue and the austere production design drive too much of the film’s pacing. If anything, he doesn’t give enough autonomy to Washington and McDormand. Seeing Shakespeare live, the audience at least gets a moment to breathe between scenes, to soak in what just happened — but there’s no such luxury here. Coen’s ideas are sometimes nifty, as when he depicts Macbeth’s unwise encounters with the Weird Sisters (all three played by famed stage actor Kathryn Hunter, known for her physical performances). Hunter’s contorting, menacing witches give Coen his most inspired visual moments — you really do feel immersed in the drama whenever they’re on screen, or when Washington and McDormand are playing off of one another’s confusion, anger and fear. 

But most times the film isn’t quite so immersive. Being distant and rigid doesn’t work when the audience will by default not understand half of the dialogue — we should be transported. This film stumbles a bit in that crucial regard. 

Perhaps it isn’t fair to judge which Coen brother brings what to the table based solely on this film, but it’s hard not to wonder how The Tragedy of Macbeth would’ve worked if both Coens had been involved. The film is missing the fleetness of the duo’s best films; Macbeth is, of course, dour material, but it would have been possible to have a little bit of fun with it. Even so, don’t resign yourself to seeing this one at home — for all the movie’s faults, you can always trust a Coen to make the most of a big canvas. 

Correction: A previous version of this review stated that 2003's Intolerable Cruelty was also a solo directorial effort from Joel Coen. Ethan Coen was in fact an uncredited co-director on that film.