The old fable of the scorpion and the frog goes something like this: a scorpion needs to cross the river, but unable to do so, asks a lowly frog for a lift. Hesitant to carry him on his exposed back, the frog makes the scorpion promise that he will, under any circumstances, sting the frog. Halfway across the river, the scorpion sinks his tail deep into the frog’s back, dooming the both of them to a watery grave. When the frog asks the scorpion why he did it, the scorpion responds, “I couldn’t help myself. It’s my nature.”
Iago is possibly the most evil of all of Shakespeare’s characters, for his motivation to ensnare the virtuous Othello seems so slight, and the hate-filled revenge exacted upon the Moor seems severely ill-proportionate to the crime of, essentially, being passed over for promotion. In fact, Iago is so filled with poison that he doesn’t just get revenge: he destroys a human being. Many of us have found ourselves in similar positions, when the ill-equipped underling getting undue recognition while our hard work clearly demands the position, but few if any of us have been filled with homicidal tendencies to the point of action. It’s this audience-imposed logic that makes Iago and his nature such a mystery to us.
Having someone succumb to the somewhat vainglorious efforts to explain and justify Iago’s actions isn’t so farfetched a scenario, as writer/producer/star Katherine Grant-Suttie most likely succumbed to that fanciful desire years ago when she wrote “The Iago Epilogue.” Although an attempt at explanation and demystification of a purely evil character can sometime end up feeling more like a hollow attempt at exploring Hannibal Lecter’s backstory or throwing Darth Vader a pity party with needless exposition, this film, thankfully, doesn’t give us easy, or for that matter lucid, answers. It’s this film’s abashed philosophical utterances and abrupt vagaries that keep us guessing as to Iago’s true motivation, an answer that intentionally eludes us even more so having viewed the film.
The film’s foundational premise is that Iago has been imprisoned in solitary confinement for the last nine years and is only now breaking silence, choosing to break the fourth wall for our sake. Set in modern time, the film begins with doctored news footage regarding Iago’s crimes and sentencing, but the subpar overdubbing and scattershot editing meant to evoke an of the moment feel ends up feeling more like a high school English project. (“My kingdom for a sound mixer!”) It’s an immediate wrong note, but thankfully, it’s more window dressing than actual panorama, successfully hinting at additional upcoming risks the filmmakers are willing to take.
When we next delve into Iago’s cell where the majority of the film occurs, DP and director Steven LaMorte lovingly bathes Grant-Suttie in shadows and gorgeously rendered hues of browns and grays, no doubt meant to evoke David Fincher’s serial killer grittiness. Fittingly, seductive musical choices suggest calculated manipulation via Iago’s self-justified reasons to the audience. All this atmosphere, complemented with Grant-Suttie’s hollow stares and sullen eye sockets, and the audience feels the years of silent contemplation weighing on her, as she is the Ouroboros: the snake that eats its own tail forever.
Grant-Suttie’s close study of the text and character is apparent as her deft understanding of the play reveals itself in clever characterization and acute mannerisms. Yet the choice to cast herself in the main role suggests an attempted statement regarding modern gender roles via this swapping stunt, but she’s two hours late to the party. The audience is already so accustomed to this parlor trick that we’ve become somewhat numb to it. But not to worry, as Grant-Suttie’s script and LaMorte’s direction have a few more tricks and subtexts up their sleeves.
Drawing deeply from the well (or toilet bowl?) of manipulation as crime, the screenwriter star drinks deep from the fact that Iago’s only crime is insinuation and slander. You see, Iago did nothing wrong and blames everyone but herself—it’s God’s countenance, Othello’s jealousy, mankind’s sinful nature, she was born this way, whatever. She’s written so teflon-ish that she delusionally refers to herself as “Honest Iago.” The first time, she shortly thereafter breaks into a coughing fit, revealing the humanity of a character sometimes dismissed as a monster. And maybe that’s one of Grant-Suttie main points, that she wants us to see Iago for who he/she is and not just brush him/her off as we have so many of history’s most horrible human beings. Our vilification of history's greatest monsters brings about a disservice to us both, as we can thus rank them as “not us,” thereby relieving us of the possible responsibility of becoming like them. But when Iago can barely speak from between gasps of air, we see that she’s just as human as we are, and that we have the capability of being just as manipulative and calculating as she is.
The second time she gives herself this misguided nomenclature is right before she repeatedly bashes her head upon a toilet, claiming to us, “Am I not what I am?” It’s this scripted delusional conclusion that propels so much of the film, that Iago is nothing more than the scorpion on the frog’s back. And as Iago slowly kicks her own ass throughout the brief runtime, we can’t help but wonder if she is her own worst enemy. Maybe all that befalls her throughout Shakespeare’s play could have been avoided if she, just like the rest of us, kept her head down and worked her way slowly towards a comfortable life in middle management. And just when we think we’ve got the character figured out, Grant-Suttie’s script throws a few more curveballs our way when she literally fights a losing battle, and it’s now Iago’s hubris that drives the character to make such malicious jumps in logic, thinking she can convince us and herself of her pure motives.
It’s the script’s constant confounding of the character that pulls us into the film, a paradoxical paradigm of a villain that forces us to examine our own humanity. Maybe this isn’t the Iago we necessarily want but the one we need right now in order to understand our lives, what with her single-minded dictatorial misguided patriotism fighting in support of a racial divide. (And with Grant-Suttie deliciously chewing the scenery like the bastard daughter of Charlie Manson, it may all be a bit much at times, but at least watching her smash her own head in is cathartic.) Despite uneven production values and a lack of restraint where some could aid, it’s Grant-Suttie’s hurly-burly of a script that shines brightest in this murkiest of swamps, even if it all ends up being an exercise in pseudo-psychology and comes to nothing more than a host of even more questions than when we started. Yet by getting through this wild ride of a short, we now know what we don’t know, which is why we keep allowing that damn scorpion onto our backs, thinking that maybe this will be the time he won’t sting us.
“The Iago Epilogue” is currently traveling the festival circuit and will be shown at LA Femme Film Festival, in Los Angeles, CA, on October 19, 2017. The film can also be seen at http://battlegroundproductions.org/projects/the-iago-epilogue/.