The film starts by introducing us to Joe "Mac" McBeth (James LeGros) and his wife Pat (Maura Tierney), two low-key (but very much in-love) workers at a local greasy spoon called Duncans, owned by Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn). When it becomes apparent that Duncan isn't appreciative of Joe's ideas (such as a drive-up window), Pat and Joe plan to kill Duncan and take over the place. Things don't go quite according to plan though and Duncan ends up in the frier.
Mac and Pat get think they've got things covered. Duncan's sons, Malcolm (Tom Guiry) and Donald (Geoff Dunsworth) sell the restaurant to Mac and Pat, unaware of what they've done. Soon enough, the run-down diner has been transformed into a slick eatery that's doing superb business. While "Scotland, PA" is simply witty and funny in the film's first half, it's not until chief inspector McDuff (Christopher Walken) enters the picture that the film starts to really get going. This is easily the best Walken performance I've seen in years - it's Best Supporting Actor-worthy, but will likely go unrecognized due to the fact that the film's out so early in the year.
It's Walken that ties everything together. As McDuff, he's relaxed and has remarkably funny comedic timing, making sharp jokes, but also holding the character's cards close, not revealing what he's thinking about the situation he's presented with. The result is a tense back-and-forth as one side tries to fool the other. As the stress level rises, so does the drama and violence, but what suprised me was how well "Scotland" slides from comedy into seriously darker tones; while not always effective, this second half works better than I'd expected, mainly thanks to the performances. Legros, in particular, does a pretty suprising and smooth turn from slightly goofy to stone-cold. Tierney (Morisette's real-life wife) is also at her very best - previously known for playing intelligent, good-hearted characters, she truly gets into playing the calculating Pat. There's also some good supporting performances from Kevin Corrigan, as well as the trio of Amy Smart, Andy Dick and Timothy Levitch as three hippies who haunt Mac.
Morisette's film also succeeds in creating atmosphere. The costumes and music are purely 70's, down the last detail. The cinematography by Wally Pfister ("Memento") is also superb. While not everything works - and there are a few little patches of comedy and drama that are a bit flat in comparison to the rest - the cast is energetic and very entertaining, especially Walken, who's priceless in the role. "Scotland, PA" is a suprising success - an original and very enjoyable darkly comedic take on Shakespeare's tale.
VIDEO: Showtime/Sundance presents "Scotland, PA" in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic(!) widescreen on a single-layer disc. A fact both unfortunate and irritating, the studio has provided a dismal transfer the likes of which I haven't seen since some of the lesser releases of the early days of the format. While Pfister's cinematography appeared slightly soft during the theatrical screening I attended, it looks even more so here. While the daylight scenes seem merely noticably soft, the night scenes look not only lacking in definition, but murky and too dark.
Ah, but it gets worse. Artfacts, occasionally nasty enough to make the background appear to be slightly shifting, appear in many scenes. Edge enhancement is only infrequently seen, but when visible, it's distracting and certainly irritating. The print isn't in optimal condition, either: while print flaws aren't a consistent problem, several marks and the occasional scratch were spotted. While some scenes did manage to look better than others, there were hardly any scenes that didn't present at least a minimal concern with the image quality.
The presentation doesn't even offer the colors well. Although a fair amount of scenes offered the film's bright color palette with decent results, brighter colors could also appear noticably smeared and/or muddy. Last, but not least, flesh tones look off in several scenes. There's really no excuse for a studio offering a presentation this bad at this point in the history of the DVD format.
SOUND: When I attended a screening of the film early in 2002, I saw the film in a small auditorium with a top-notch sound system cranked up to 11. While a low-budget indie film, several of those in attendance commented on the fact that the film's soundtrack, full of 70's rock, nearly shook the theater down. There's some great songs scattered throughout this film that sounded incredible back then and I couldn't wait to hear them in 5.1 on the DVD.
Unfortunately, the DVD does not provide that chance. Instead, we're given a 2.0 soundtrack that is often bothersome. The dialogue is too low in volume in the soundtrack, requiring the volume to be cranked up. Then, when the songs come in, they're too loud, requiring the volume to be turned back down again. Even worse, the fantastic score by Anton Sanko (which reminded me slightly of Carter Burwell's "Fargo" score on occasion) is buried in the soundtrack, fighting for space along with the 70's rock, occasional sound effects and dialogue. This is simply an unpleasant way to try and listen to not only good music, but great dialogue. There's no apparent reason why the original 5.1 soundtrack couldn't have been included here.
MENUS: Someone needs to go back to menu school. In one of the oddest things I've ever seen, the menus for the "Scotland, PA" DVD start off with a nearly minute-long montage of scenes (complete with wacky, primitive animation at points in-between) that could qualify as a teaser trailer for the movie that viewers are about to see. Afterwards, the main and sub-menus are non-animated and use cool images from the film. They set the tone better and make the inclusion of the strange opening clip (even though it can be skipped past) all the more ridiculous.
EXTRAS: After screwing up the presentation of the film, the studio does manage to succeed in the less-important extras department. Aside from a commentary by writer/director Billy Morisette, there's also a five minute interview with the director, a jokey little Sundance featurette, credits and DVD-ROM weblink.
Final Thoughts: A highly entertaining dark comedy, "Scotland, PA." offers terrific dialogue, a clever and witty reworking of the "Macbeth" tale and stellar performances. However, the film deserved far better treatment for the DVD than it gets here. While the extras are fine, the image quality is mostly a mess and the soundtrack is not only not the theatrical 5.1 presentation, but a 2.0 that's lousy. While I would love for this title to be re-done before its release, I doubt that'll happen. This is the first release from Sundance Home Entertainment (in association with Showtime, apparently) and hopefully, future releases will be far better than this one.
I'm still going to recommend "Scotland, PA" - but only as a rental. Fans of dark comedies (and terrific Christopher Walken performances, as this is one of his best) should enjoy it.