One of the signature films of Canada’s Bruce
McDonald, who can always be counted on for the unexpected. Unexpected is
just what the rock ‘n roll fuelled HIGHWAY 61 is, along with outrageous,
enjoyable and a little freaky.
HIGHWAY 61, from 1991, followed the no-budget ROADKILL
(1989), directed by Bruce McDonald, scripted by and co-starring Don
McKellar, and headlined by Valerie Buhagiar. The three would repeat
their roles in HIGHWAY 61, which can be seen as a more polished redo of
the earlier film. Inspired in equal parts by the lore of the real
Highway 61 and the Canadian road movie classic GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD
(1970), HIGHWAY 61 was a cult success, and actually played briefly in
the US (something ROADKILL never achieved).
In the years since Don McKellar and Bruce McDonald have
become two of Canada’s premiere filmmakers. McKellar has acted in the
likes of eXistenZ and MONKEY TROUBLE, and directed the features LAST
NIGHT and CHILDSTAR. As for McDonald, he’s given us such films as DANCE
ME OUTSIDE, HARD CORE LOGO, THE TRACY FRAGMENTS and
While not all of his efforts have been entirely successful (as anyone
who’s sat through PICTURE CLAIRE or THE LOVE CRIMES OF GILLIAN GUESS can
attest), Bruce McDonald is definitely a filmmaker to keep your eye on.
Pokey is a small town barber who finds fame of a sort
when he discovers a dead body in his Ontario barber shop. Jackie is a
thief looking to transport the corpse of her brother down Highway 61,
the birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll (it runs through Graceland) and the one
highway that traverses both the U.S. and Canada under a single name. The
two team up, taking off in Pokey’s ‘63 Ford Galaxy 500 with Jackie’s bro
in a coffin strapped to the roof.
Meanwhile, a man is afoot who believes he’s Satan. He
seems to possess supernatural abilities, as he proves by filching money
from a bingo parlor. He also likes to barter the souls of any and
everyone he comes across, be they young or old. He has an unhealthy
interest in Jackie’s dead brother, and shadows her and Pokey down
Following a confrontation with apathetic border
patrolmen, Jackie and Pokey enter the U.S.A. Among the many odd folks
they encounter are a single father with three gospel singing children
(Jackie steals their life savings) and a freak who lets chickens loose
in his house and shoots at them. Invariably Jackie and Pokey fall in
love, while just as invariably Satan (or whoever he is) closes in on
Bruce McDonald is a filmmaker who infamously told the
audience of a Canadian awards ceremony that he’d spend his reward money
on “a big chunk of hash.” No wonder he’s perpetually drawn to odd and
esoteric subject matter.
HIGHWAY 61, however, is actually quite restrained from
a filmmaking standpoint, especially when compared to McDonald’s later,
more stylistically extravagant projects. That restraint, of course,
makes the proceedings seem all the more bizarre.
The film’s faults are in the screenplay, which has a
tendency to set up promising situations and then drop them. This is most
evident in the business about Satan, which never meets any kind of
satisfying pinnacle and ultimately fizzles out.
What ultimately redeems HIGHWAY 61 (and many of
McDonald’s other features) is the warmth and likeability of the
proceedings. From the lead actors down to supporting roles by the likes
of Jello Biafra and SHOCK CORRIDOR’S Earl Pastko, the performers all
acquit themselves well, evincing McDonald’s twisted but ultimately
kind-hearted touch. Plus it has a rocking soundtrack.
Director: Bruce McDonald
Producer: Colin Brunton
Screenplay: Don McKellar
Cinematography: Miroslaw Baszak
Editing: Michael Pacek
Cast: Don McKellar, Valerie Buhagiar, Earl Pastko, Tracy Wright, Jello
Biafra, Art Bergmann, Peter Breck, Hadley Obodiac, Tav Falco, Johnny
Askwith, Namir Khan, Steve Fall