Bruce McDonald is a renegade of Canadian independent cinema. With his trademark look of cowboy hat and leather jacket (complimented by his rock-n-roll sensibility), he has earned himself a rock-star reputation spanning three-decades. Some of his recent films include the horror titles Hellions and Pontypool, and his experimental project The Tracey Fragments further showcases his disregard for rules. He has directed countless television series and sustained his career by hopping in and out of the mainstream system. The tragedy is that despite his prolific catalogue, audiences outside of Canada are oblivious to most of his work.
In 1989 he made his debut with a feature film called Roadkill. Shot in black and white, it chronicled the journey of a rock-band promoter’s assistant, who embarks on a cross-country road trip to locate a rogue punk band – who have missed tour dates – and fire them from the label. Without a license, she hires a cab with a stoner at the wheel and discovers that the band’s lead singer has disappeared on a “spiritual quest”. What ensues is a strange and fantastical adventure that sees her crossing paths with an assortment of weird, wild and psychotic characters.
The film was the first in what became McDonald’s “Rock N Roll Trilogy”, preceding Highway 61 and the seminal cult hit Hard Core Logo. This trilogy would later be expanded to include an additional two instalments (Trigger and Hard Core Logo 2), with another few in development. For all of the motifs and variants within each of those films, Roadkill foreshadowed them all with its foundation of themes including faux documentation, death and musical integration. The result is a kinetic Alice In Wonderland-like fable that wears its “cult” badge proudly.
What is most striking about Roadkill is the marriage of moving image and music. With a loud rock soundtrack featuring noteworthy Canadian bands of the time, McDonald fills the screen with a collage of strange photogenic images that include roadside attractions, monuments and unusual characters. The white lines of the highway flick by as the lead character travels the country on a mission that becomes one of self-discovery.
The most fascinating of her encounters is with a wannabe serial killer, played by renowned actor/writer Don McKeller, who is yet to begin his new career and seeks her advice on how to start. McKeller’s performance is outstanding – as usual – and his moment of glory is as endearing as it is shocking. It is this type of bizarre interaction of characters that makes Roadkill a unique and memorable cinematic experience. An added perk is an unexpected appearance by the legendary Joey Ramone.
Roadkill marks the origin of a loud voice in Canadian cinema and in retrospect – knowing the eclectic trajectory that Bruce McDonald’s career has taken – revisiting the film has reaffirmed the fact that he knew precisely what he was doing from the get go. His vision was concise, and the chaotic nature of the story was brilliantly orchestrated. It is a film highly worth seeking, with the subsequent films of the series worthy of pursuit. And of course, his greater body of work is highly recommended.