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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Highway 61 (1991)

* * *

Director: Bruce McDonald
Starring: Don McKellar, Valerie Buhagiar, Earl Pastko

Take a corpse, a road trip, and the devil, mix in some missing drugs and an opposites attract romance, and you’ll get Bruce McDonald’s Highway 61. A dark comedy full of oddball characters and strange scenes, this is a film that can’t really be compared to any other because it goes so far off the beaten track and is totally doing it’s own thing.

The film begins in a small town near Thunder Bay with na├»ve and somewhat sheltered barber Pokey Jones (Don McKellar) finding a frozen body in his backyard. Jackie Bangs (Valerie Buhagiar) comes to claim the body, stating that he’s her brother. In reality she wants to use the body to smuggle drugs into the US and she talks Pokey into driving her and the body down Highway 61 to New Orleans. Pokey is excited by the prospect, having never been anywhere or done anything. He’s also intrigued by Jackie, who works as a roadie, and tells her about his own aspirations to be a jazz musician.

During the course of their journey they have several small adventures, the strangest of which involves a visit to some friends of Jackie’s that degenerates into a shooting spree. The how and why of that I’ll leave for you to discover for yourself. Running a close second in terms of strange encounters is their meetings with the Watson family, a father and three daughters who tour around the south in a motor home. Abandoned by Mrs. Watson, Mr. Watson is determined to make his daughters stars – a loosing battle if ever there was one. This encounter also ends with shooting, which would suggest that the problem isn’t other people as much as it is Pokey and Jackie.

Running parallel to their journey is that of Mr. Skin (Earl Pastko), who may or may not be Satan. He’s on their trail because he has a claim of his own on the corpse, namely that the man had sold him his soul before dying. He collects more souls (or, rather, the promise of souls) on the way to New Orleans and his return to his hometown culminates in a bizarre, but entirely fitting, climax.

This is an odd film, but not odd in a “look at me I’m so alternative” kind of way. Rather it is odd in a way that seems natural and without pretence. It is conventional to a point, at least in terms of road movie customs, but it turns everything on its head with its dark, satirical sensibilities. At one point Mr. Skin encounters one of the Watson girls, who informs him of her father’s promise that her mother is coming back, that she and her sisters will be stars, and that she’ll grow up to be beautiful and marry someone famous. “I’m not sure who, exactly.” Mr. Skin replies by stating: “You’re going to be an ugly lady. You’ll probably be fat and work as a cashier and no one is going to want to marry you. You see, parents aren’t allowed to tell the truth about certain things.” He then tells her that if she really wants to become famous, all she has to do is sign her name on a piece of paper he’ll give her. She’s not the first person to sign her soul away for a chance at stardom and she certainly won't be the last.

As far as the acting goes, McKellar and Buhagiar are well cast, playing characters who are strange in their own ways but also more sane and grounded than all the others in the film. McKellar plays Pokey as book smart but woefully lacking in street smarts, so vulnerable to Jackie’s charms that you still want to protect him from her even after you’ve realized that beneath her hard exterior, there’s a softie with a good heart. The show is stolen of course by Pastko in a supremely creepy, and yet also kind of funny, performance. Whether he actually is Satan or just a guy with a bunch of names signed on pieces of paper is always in question and the revelation at the end is ultimately very satisfying. Though this isn’t the kind of movie that will appeal to everyone, it is nevertheless very good and a solid piece of entertainment.

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