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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.

The Package
     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 PONTYPOOL. 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.

The Story
     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 Highway 61.
     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 them.

The Direction
     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.

Vital Statistics

Shadow Shows

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