Friday, January 20, 2012

Movie – Scotland, PA (2001)

The movie Scotland, PA is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in suburban Pennsylvania in the early 1970s.  It is a dark comedy that takes place primarily in a restaurant first named Duncan’s and later named McBeths (with a somewhat familiar giant “M” in the name).  I would describe its tone as “Macbeth meets Fargo”.  Despite the setting it is a pretty faithful version of the play.  It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and it is a very entertaining movie.

You do not have to be familiar with the Macbeth story in order to understand what is going on in this movie.  If you do want an overview of the plot, I have it in the parent post for this category.  In it you can also find links to the other Macbeth movies I have reviewed.

Scotland, PA stars Brad Pitt look-alike James LeGros (Zodiac) as Joe “Mac” McBeth.  Playing his wife Pat McBeth is Maura Tierney (Newsradio, ER).  Playing detective Lieutenant McDuff (and channeling Columbo) is Christopher Walken.  Kevin Corrigan (The Departed, Unstoppable) plays Anthony “Banko” Banconi.  Character actor James Rebhorn plays Norm Duncan, the owner of the restaurant Mac, Pat, and Banko work at.

Right from the opening of the movie you get a good idea what you are in for.  Three stoned hippies are at a fair after dark on one of the rides.  They drop something then have the following dialogue:

-Who dropped the chicken?
-I would have eaten that.
-It was foul.
-The fowl was foul.
-And the fair was fair.
-Foul's fair.
-The fair is foul.
-My ass hurts.
-I don't think that one works.

Yes, those are the three “witches” (including Amy Smart in an early role as a fortuneteller with a Magic 8 Ball) and that dialogue is as close as you will get to Shakespeare’s in this movie.  I have heard that Amy Smart brought the Magic 8 Ball to her audition and was cast on the spot because the filmmakers loved it.

Speaking of filmmakers, this movie was written and directed by actor Billy Morrissette (Pump Up the Volume).  He was married to Maura Tierney at the time and as he was writing the screenplay he started inserting more and more of his wife’s phrases into the lines for the Lady Macbeth part.  It finally dawned on him that he was writing the role for his wife.  He got the funding to direct the film himself, with Tierney producing and starring in it.  After the attention this film got I am surprised that he has never written or directed a movie since.  In the commentary he mentions a number of times that scenes were difficult to shoot.  For instance, he filmed the movie in Halifax, Nova Scotia because of all the fog it has and it ended up being sunny pretty much every day.  Perhaps the directing experience was so bad he didn’t want to do it again.

This movie features terrific musical cues for many of the scenes.  My favorite appears early in the movie when Mac and Banko are leaving a bar (named The Witches Brew).  Banko passes out in the back of a pickup and Mac stumbles away.  As the song Bad Company hits its chorus (“That’s why they call me…BAD COMPANY”) the Ferris wheel at the fair briefly lights up in the background, and then fades as Mac turns to look.  He stumbles there and meets the three hippies.  Amy Smart’s character tells his fortune and predicts that he will work in a place where cars simply drive up to an intercom, order their food, and then drive to a window to pick it up – a “drive thru”, if you will.  Mac is really drunk and can’t figure out what to make of all this.

Pat Mcbeth is sick of working as a waitress at Duncan’s restaurant and being hit on by the assistant manager.  She’s also sick of the fact that her husband Mac is content to be a fry cook and has no ambition to be anything better.  The night Mac and Banko got drunk, Mac found out that the assistant manager was stealing.  He tells Pat and she convinces Mac to tell the owner.  Duncan rewards Mac by making him the assistant manager and he lets the two of them in on an idea he’s had.  He’s going to have cars be able to just drive up to his restaurant, order their food, and drive off with it.  Mac is kind of freaked out because this is what the hippie chick told him.

Pat tells Mac that they have to act fast.  She’s not content with him being only assistant manager.  She convinces him that they need to steal the plans for the drive thru by making it look like a robbery gone bad.  Oh, by the way, Mac will have to kill Duncan.  She says to him, “We're not bad people, Mac... just underachievers who have to make up for lost time.”  Needless to say, Mac is not okay with this idea.  She convinces him anyway, and in a scene fittingly filled with gallows humor, they end up doing in Duncan.

At the funeral, we get our first sight of Lieutenant McDuff, an out of town detective brought in to help the dimwit in the local police department.  He arrests a local man, who we find out was framed by Pat for the murder (she left some of Duncan’s jewelry with the man while he slept). 

In the meantime, Duncan’s two sons have pretty much given the restaurant to Mac and Pat since their father’s death left them rich.  The McBeths redo the place and put in the drive thru, which proves very popular.  They become a lot better off because of how well the place is doing.  Mac buys himself a new Camaro, complete with horns on the hood.

Meanwhile, the man originally arrested ends up being exonerated, so McDuff comes back to do more digging.  One of Duncan’s sons had a big fight with his father that same night, then went on the road with his band, so he looks to be a likely suspect in his father’s death.  McDuff tracks him down, but doesn’t believe the kid killed his father.  McDuff is very interested in the fact that the son saw the McBeths on their way to the restaurant the same night Duncan died. 

Mac and Pat are not comfortable with McDuff back in town asking questions.  In addition, Banko is asking how Mac came up with the idea for the drive thru.  Banko also knows that Mac and Pat left his party early the night of the murder.  Things really start to snowball from there for Mac and Pat as another murder has to be done to cover up the first, then a third to cover up the second, and so on.

A number of the classic Macbeth scenes are in this movie.  Pat burns her hand the night of the first murder.  She literally has a spot on her hand.  She keeps putting ointment on it long after it has healed, and she takes to wearing gloves to cover up her imaginary wound.  The scene where Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo at a meal is translated to a press conference outside the restaurant.  While there is no second set of prophecies from the hippies, Mac does meet them again and he tells Pat that they assured him everything was going to be all right.  When he asks the hippies what he should do about McDuff, one of them suggests he kill McDuff and his whole family.  Another hippie yells at the first one that you could do that “maybe a thousand years ago”, but not now when everyone is civilized.  There is no “Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane”, but Mac does go hunting with Banko in “Birnam Woods”.

A small running joke in the movie is how almost everybody’s surname in this small town begins with “Mc”.  There is even a credited role for “McStreaker”.  Going along with this, they show a clip from the TV show McCloud a couple of times.  Another running joke is that the small town policeman is as numb as a pounded thumb.  Yet another is how almost everybody drives a Camaro.

The two people that really steal every scene they are in are Maura Tierney and Christopher Walken.  I mentioned at the top that Walken was channeling Columbo for this role - a Columbo who is a vegetarian with a secret desire to open his own restaurant.

Tierney is fantastic in the Lady Macbeth role.  She’s not a very nice person to others, but she does love her husband, despite the flaws that she sees in him.  She’s got a bit of a potty mouth (“Sometimes you animals forget there's a f*cking LADY in the room!”) and reportedly Billy Morrissette put a number of lines in because he heard his wife saying them in real life.  In his commentary, he also says that the scene where his wife is passionately making out with LeGros was her favorite scene in the movie, although he doesn’t understand why.  (wink wink)

When the movie ends, as the strains of The Marshall Tucker Band’s song Can’t You See play over the final scene and end credits (“Can’t you see?  Oh, can’t you see…what that woman’s….been doing to me?”), you realize you’ve seen a pretty unique interpretation of the Macbeth story.  Unless you hate Bad Company songs, which are spread throughout the movie, then I highly recommend this film.

(And yes, there really is a Scotland, Pennsylvania.  It’s about 20 miles from Gettysburg.)

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


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