Cinematic Shakespeare shot by Wally Pfister, who created the look of the Dark Knight Trilogy? A reworking of Macbeth as a private detective story featuring Christopher Walken as a private detective known as McDuff? How about an update on the Scottish play that moves the action from battle-grounds and bloody daggers to ice-cream cones and hot griddles in an American burger bar? However you slice, it, writer and director Billy Morrissette comes up with the goods in terms of re-imagining a classic text; it’s easy enough to update Richard III to 1930’s Britain, as Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film did. It’s quite another to completely change the milieu of the classic story; it’s a miracle that Scotland PA works so well.
No longer a king, unless you count being a burger king, Duncan (James Rebhorn) runs a simple meat-counter in Pennsylvania circa 1973. Joe McBeth (James Le Gros) has been passed over for promotion, and schemes with his wife Pat (Maura Tierney) to get what he feels is his rightful place in the scheme of things. Big-shot Duncan ends up falling in his own deep-fat fryer, but local detective McDuff (Walken) arrives to sort out the mystery; Joe McBeth seems like he’s go a bit of guilt to hide, and his refurbishment of Duncan’s restaurant as McBeth’s, complete with a McDonald’s style menu, raises questions about his methods.
While it doesn’t have quite as much to offer in terms of swagger and style as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet revamp, there’s absolutely tonnes of invention here; by reapplying the tribal warfare of ancient Scotland to the consumerism and marketplace competition of 1970’s America, Morrisette comes up with a stimulating take on Shakespeare that forces the view to reassess the text all over again. James Thurber had previously re-imagined Macbeth as a murder mystery, complete with a surprise ending, but Morrisette takes a comical and idiosyncratic approach; the three witches are stoners, who waylay Macbeth as he wanders through a deserted fairground. It’s also super-cool that instead of Macbeth seeing Banquo’s ghost as a castle feast, the apparition appears while Macbeth is giving a press conference to announce his own drive-through service.
As with the recently reviewed film, Balls of Fury, there’s no doubt that Walken takes things to another level when he turns up, some 40 minutes in. But Le Gros and Tierney are great as the deadly couple, there’s tonnes of rockin’ music from the great Bad Company, and even a musical sequence set to the classic summer anthem Beach Baby by First Class, played here in its entirety. By seeking to tell a similar story, rather than just update the language, Morrisette comes up trumps with a clever, funny version of the great tragedy; after all, who are the McBeths but, as Pat says, ‘underachievers who have to make up for lost time…’ And Shakespeare should be proud to see his work adapted so skillfully. Is this a spatula I see before me?