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Morsels of ‘Macbeth’
Categories: Film, Utrinque Paratus

Updated bloody tragedy a well done treat

By Leigh E. Rich

Scotland, Pa.
Written and directed by Bill Morrissette
Staring James LeGros, Maura Tierney, Christopher Walken
Grade: A

Scotland, Pa. is Shakespeare well done. Literally. A modern-day retelling of Macbeth set in the realm of hamburger griddles and deep fat fryers in 1972 rural Pennsylvania, writer and director Billy Morrissette’s updated story of unchecked ambition and greed is a dark comedy of raw and beefy proportions.

This not-so-subtle directorial debut for longtime film and television actor Morrissette goes for the overtly obvious. Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn), owner and operator of Duncan’s fast food joint, teeters on the precipice of restaurant revolution with his burgeoning notion of beefing up business by adding what amounts to a primitive drive-thru. Blueprints in hand, Duncan makes two fatal mistakes—sharing his plans with employees Joe “Mac” McBeth (James LeGros) and his wife Pat McBeth (Maura Tierney) and promoting his whiny teenage son Malcolm (Tom Guiry) to the position of manager in lieu of Mac.

Angered at being reduced to the wife of the assistant manager, Pat cajoles Mac to take action, an easy task with Tierney’s sultry ways and the help of three hippies (somewhat awkward cameos by Andy Dick, Amy Smart, and Timothy “Speed” Livitch) Mac envisioned in a drunken stupor the night before.

It is, after all, Mac’s idea to use an intercom system in Duncan’s “drive-out”—instead of a manned booth—and so begins McBeth’s illegitimate rise to power.

Feigning illness to escape co-worker Anthony Banconi’s (Kevin Corrigan) birthday party cum Yahtzee tourney, the McBeths’ attempted burglary of the restaurant disintegrates into Duncan’s accidental murder in a freak fryer incident. Visions of rock stardom dancing in his head, Malcolm sells Duncan’s to Mac and Pat—his father’s “loyal” employees who change the name to McBeth’s, transform the fast food business and the sleepy Pennsylvanian town, and move into a whole new tax bracket.

Enter Lt. Ernie McDuff, played nimbly by the ever-lovable Christopher Walken, who smells a rat in Duncan’s demise. Sporting thick, square glasses and continually listening to self-help tapes, the vegetarian McDuff provides a dry humor in this otherwise twisted tale. When investigating the McBeths, McDuff congratulates them on the success of their restaurant: “Of course, when I saw it last, there was a dead body in the fryer.”

When Scotland, Pa. is cooked up right, particularly with wit such as this, it sizzles. Tierney’s version of Lady Macbeth—aptly named Pat and transcending gender lines—translates flawlessly to 1970s America and is the relish of the film. Instead of persuading her husband to the deed with “Wouldst thou have that / Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life, / And live a coward in thine own esteem, / Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’ “ Pat bleats to Mac, “I’m the f—king assistant manager’s wife?!” And when Mac sinks further into his murderous plot, she consoles: “I know you don’t do this every day and you’re doing a f—king excellent job.”

Well-versed in his Shakespeare, Morrissette even uses language from the original play. Lady Macbeth’s “What’s done cannot be undone” is the flavor behind Pat’s “Mac, it’s done. It can’t be undone,” and the infernal knocking of which Macbeth complains—“Whence is that knocking? / How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?”—is transformed into interminable ringing of the telephone.

Morrissette’s most brilliant recipe in Scotland, Pa., however, is in updating Lady Macbeth’s guilty conscience. As Duncan fortuitously falls face first into the fryer, Pat’s hand is splashed by the hot oil, leaving a burn she tries to heal with a salve long after the injury is gone. In place of the infamous “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” speech, Pat tells the pharmacist who wonders why she needs more ointment, “I need a vat of it. My f—king hand is falling off!”

Unfortunately, when Scotland, Pa. doesn’t taste so good, the Shakespeare connection is forced and self-conscious. Morrissette’s three hippies are more absurd than Shakespeare’s three witches and not as comical as Tierney and Walken. The apparent omission of Macbeth’s frenzied slaughter of Macduff’s family in Shakespeare’s play, for example, is explained away by Morrissette’s hippies that one just can’t go around killing people in this day and age. And the key plot element of Birnam Wood becomes an uninspired reference to “Burnham Woods,” where Mac and Banconi go hunting. Such forced comparisons detract from Morrissette’s overall strong vision and perhaps should have been left out.

Despite these few unsavory bits, Scotland, Pa. serves up succulent one-liners as well as a less regal, more approachable Macbeth for the masses. As fellow fast food employee Banconi explains, “We’re not bad people, Mac. We’re just underachievers who have to make up for lost time.”

Packaged in a ’70s atmosphere, complete with waterbeds, early model Cameros, and even a picture of Nixon, Morrissette’s adaptation is a juicy and salty combo meal sure to become a cult classic. 

Rich, L. E. (2002, April 2). Morsels of ‘Macbeth’: Updated bloody tragedy a well done treat. CU-Denver Advocate.

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