Scotland, PA. Directed by Billy Morrissette. Lot 47, 2001.
Reviewed by Carolyn Jess
The Queen’s University of Belfast
Jess, Carolyn. “Review of Scotland, PA. Directed by Billy Morrissette. Lot 47, 2001.” Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1 (May, 2004): 18.1-5 http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-1/revjes2.html>.
Written and directed by Billy Morrissette. Produced by Andrew Farkas, Elizabeth Guildford. Cinematography by Wally Pfister. Production designer, Jennifer Stewart. Editor, Adam Lichtenstein. Composer, Anton Sanko. Costume designer, David C. Robinson. Set designer, Patricia Larman. With James LeGros (Joe ‘Mac’ McBeth), Maura Tierney (Pat McBeth), Christopher Walken (Lieutenant Ernie McDuff), Kevin Corrigan (Anthony ‘Banko’ Banconi), James Rebhorn (Norm Duncan), Tom Guiry (Malcolm Duncan), Amy Smart (Stacy), Andy Dick (Jesse), Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch (Hector), Josh Pais (Douglas McKenna), Reed Rudy (Kevin ‘Tanman’ McKane).
Departing from Morrissette’s early teenage encounter with Shakespeare, Scotland, PA imagines Macbeth as a black comedy set in a fast food restaurant circa 1975. The original text is eschewed for ‘air-drawn’ evocations of the central narrative and parodic displays of adolescent approaches to the Bard and his consumption by the American high-school curriculum: at least, the way it was in the seventies. ‘Mac’ here is no ambitious Thane, but one half of a married couple of ‘underachievers who have to make up for lost time’. Pat and Mac, both in their thirties, work in Norm Duncan’s restaurant, and are figured here as the duo responsible for putting the ‘fast’ in fast food, at the cost of several lives. After a series of visitations from three ghostly hippies named Stacy, Hector, and Jesse, Mac caves in to his wife’s vociferous demands and inadvertently tips Norm face-first into his deep-fat fryer. Purchasing the restaurant from Norm’s sons at a pittance, Pat and Mac realise their dream of intercom, root beer floats, and French fries as the owners of the refurbished and newly-named ‘McBeths’. With out-of-towner Lieutenant McDuff hot on their trails, the McBeths quickly perceive that the success of their burger bar depends on a lot more murders than they had anticipated.
Successfully evoking the fashion, iconography, trends, and political upheavals of the period, Morrissette’s directorial debut is one of the most enjoyable and engaging ‘spin’ versions of Shakespeare in recent years. Maura Tierney, currently starring in the TV series E.R. and married to Morrissette for over a decade, portrays Pat/Lady Macbeth with a depth and understanding from which the film’s reflexivity may appear to detract. As she is frustrated by Norm’s incompetence and ignorance, as well as by his (unrequited) urge to force his sons into the burger business, Pat’s acerbic wit is at times justified, and is balanced by her devotion to Mac, which alters over the course of the film from self-seeking prowess to withered anxiety.
Indeed, Morrissette’s most successful effort lies in his cogent direction of the protagonists, extracting from Mac both a convincing portrait of a weak-willed burger boy and a powerful performance of a man possessed by his inner anxieties who literally stumbles upon the career of serial killing. Most telling is Morrissette’s recognition of the core of Pat’s character: that what drives her, and indeed her marriage to Mac, is her strident urgency to be in control. When Mac, numbed by his crimes and disturbed by the apparitions, promises to ‘take care’ of Pat, the ‘spot’ (an invisible oil-burn) that has bothered her throughout the film engulfs her, and she promptly ends her life by taking a cleaving knife to her tartan-gloved hand. Following Mac’s demise, Ernie McDuff quits the force to take over ‘McBeths’ as a vegetarian burger bar, leaving us to ponder if his motives in pursuing the case were ever as genuine as they appeared.
The tone of the film visibly shifts between the first and second halves from shades of grey to utterly black comedy as the wounds inflicted upon others by the McBeths become apparent as bleeding lacerations on their marriage. Shot in Nova Scotia (Latin for ‘New Scotland’), the film’s appropriation of ‘the Scottish play’ is at the level of symbolic representations of Scotland that reiterate and displace the original locality. This manoeuvre further encapsulates Morrissette’s intent, for it is not so much Shakespeare’s play that he aims to convey, but his own encounter with the play, presenting it as a manifestly subjective rendering of the text. Filling the textual gaps with seventies music, film clips, and TV serials, Morrissette delights in including many of his wife’s real-life utterances as well as his own experiences (including a shot of Banko drinking alcohol the way Morrissette used to drink, and a depiction of Malcolm’s desire to kill his boss/father, echoing Morrissette’s teenage fantasies of killing his burger bar boss). Like Scotland, Shakespeare’s play is presented according to a memory of Macbeth, which in turn serves to embody and trigger many of Morrissette’s adolescent experiences and the narcissism of the seventies.
Despite the film’s budget and production problems, Scotland, PA encases many attributes of a talented director and an ongoing interest in appropriating Shakespeare across the aesthetic and dramatic spectrum. Bringing nearly two decades of acting experience to his new career, Morrissette succeeds in directing his actors within the realms of comedy and tragedy, at the same time scripting characters who are significantly multi-dimensional, flawlessly crafted, and – perhaps the most difficult of all tasks – charismatically and sensitively engaging, despite their homicidal pastimes. In this production the hero is neither McDuff nor Mac, but rather the spectator, who is eased into dark crevices of human interaction and psychosis that are usually reserved for the genres of thriller, drama, and horror. With (mocking) aspirations towards being included on the US high-school curriculum as a bonafide Shakespeare adaptation, the film well deserves its increasing scholarly attention and consumption by future Shakespeare auteurs.