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Highway 61
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by Isobel Sharp

"Who ever thought Satan would be so good at bingo?"
4 stars

In a road movie, the trip is more important than the destination, even when the destination is as inherently interesting as New Orleans. When the trip starts in the manifestly uninteresting Pickerel Falls, Ontario, then it can't help but be better to move than to stay still. And when you're being followed by the devil and carrying a dead body on the roof of your car, the trip can take on a life of its own, whether you want it to or not.

Pokey Jones (Don McKellar) is the unassuming barber of Pickerel Falls, and he dreams of better things. Dreams, but doesn't quite have the will to do; though he has a packed suitcase in his car at all times, just in case the urge strikes, it doesn't seem to have carried him further than the garage quite yet. Enter Jackie Bangs (Valerie Buhagiar), a roadie on the run from her band, who contacts Pokey after he finds a dead body in the abandoned bathtub behind his shop. The body, says Jackie, is that of her brother, and she charms Pokey into finally leaving Pickerel Falls behind and driving her to New Orleans where poor dead Jeffrey can be laid to rest in peace.

Pokey, a (very) amateur trumpeter, sees this trip as his own personal music quest - all his life he's lived at one end of a highway that passes through some of the landmarks of American music, dead-ending in fabled New Orleans. He insists on stopping in Hibbing, Minnesota, and stands in rapture outside Bob Dylan's childhood home, pondering the driveway where Dylan might have played as a child. For Pokey, America is like a dream come true (and the factories and ratty backyards he sees from the road don't seem to dispel that idea one bit) - taking this trip with the exotic, sexy Jackie just adds to the fantasy. For Jackie, this trip is just one more time on the road, with a schedule to keep and someone unsavory on her trail; we find out at the border crossing that she's not been the best-behaved woman in the world (there's a wonderful scene where a customs agent, played by Jello Biafra, gives her a hard time about her criminal record, saying America is 'his house', and she can do what she likes in her house, but had better be a good guest in his).

The unsavory someone following the duo is none other than Satan himself (Earl Pastko), driving a black pickup and carrying a stack of Polaroids. The pictures record those who have sold their souls to him, for everything from a fifth of whiskey to the promise of a successful career. The body strapped to the top of Pokey's car is that of Satan's first dead client, and Satan has every intention of collecting his soul, as soon as he gets his hands on the body. In a way, he has a better claim to the body than Jackie - despite the sad story of her brother, it's actually the case that she's using the body to transport drugs she stole from her last employers - what better way to get them through customs?

As these three travel the highway, they meet up with others, either still traveling or stuck in their own weird potholes. One man hauls his three young daughters, a creepy set of blonde mini-Barbies who dance and sing on command, from show to show. At another point, Jackie and Pokey visit a couple of rock stars Jackie knows from back in the day, and have to hunt their own dinner (chickens) through the house with handguns. By this time, Pokey, initially appalled by Jackie's disregard for the law and any type of common sense, has loosened up quite a bit; he charges through the house and pops through doorways like an FBI trainee. And all the time, the devil is right behind them, making deals and playing bingo to support his soul-buying efforts, determined to get back the body holding the soul he has a contract (signed in blood, of course) on.

Highway 61 is a road movie that takes the road seriously, as well as the ways that life can change people. McKellar's Pokey starts out sweet and naive and ends up worldly, but still remains Pokey the barber (at the end, abandoned and in need of money, he quickly gives up playing the trumpet on a street corner for the more practical and successful moneymaker of cutting hair). In comparison, Buhagiar gives us a Jackie who starts out too worldly, and gains sweetness and sympathy through her association with Pokey, as well as their encounters with others on the road. Even Satan has a story; Pastko plays him as a guy who just happens to believe he's the devil, and is doing his best to fulfill the demands of the job as he sees them. Even the bit characters are interesting, and though it's a small budget independent film, there's little of the bad acting or self-involved posing the genre is known for. Bruce McDonald, here directing the second of his road movie trilogy, clearly cares a lot about the music, the story, and the characters, giving the movie a charm which sustains it through its few weaker spots.

In one early scene, Pokey is driving through the darkness, radio on, Jackie asleep with her head in his lap. This is in a way the essence of the movie: the road, the music, and the people, moving on with nothing behind or ahead, just carrying their little world with them. Only the trip matters.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=5783&reviewer=291
originally posted: 03/20/02 01:04:19
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User Comments

1/09/04 Karen C The music is amazing! Plot quirky yet sweet. 4 stars
7/10/02 Jack R Offbeat but totally pointless junk. Not funny. 1 stars
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  24-Apr-1992 (R)



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