November 28, 2004
Roadkill (1989) is the first part of a loosely connected rock ‘n’ roll/road movie trilogy by Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald. The movie was something of a breath of fresh air when it debuted because Canadian film had, up until then, been traditionally known as notoriously boring or, worse, derivative of American movies. McDonald managed to fuse the low budget aesthetics of the emerging U.S. indie film movement with a distinctively Canadian take on the road movie genre.
Ramona (Buhagiar) is a naïve assistant who works for a slimy rock promoter named Roy Seth (Quigley). He orders her to travel through Northern Ontario and find delinquent rock ‘n’ roll band The Children of Paradise and their enigmatic lead singer, Mathew (Bowring). The band has gone AWOL and missed their last four gigs. Seth tells Ramona to terminate their contract once she finds them.
If this premise sounds familiar, it should, because it more than resembles the structure of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Ramona, like Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), is a lone protagonist assigned a job she doesn’t want but can’t refuse. She has to navigate dangerous terrain and encounter all sorts of odd characters. Along the way she even writes her thoughts down in a diary that is conveyed to the audience in the form of a voiceover just like Willard does in Coppola’s movie.
Roadkill has the grainy, black and white film stock look of a low-budget independent films, like Stranger Than Paradise (1983) and Clerks (1994), to name just a couple of examples. The road movie format is a familiar genre and one that lends itself to the no-frills attitude of independent film because everything can be shot on location with very little money having to be spent on constructing sets.
This format also gives McDonald and screenwriter Don McKellar an excuse to introduce all sorts of colourful characters. For example, Ramona meets a documentary crew led by none other than Roadkill’s actual director (he would do this again in Hard Core Logo) who is supposed to be making a music video on the band but ends up coming across more like a riff on Dennis Hopper’s crazed photographer in Apocalypse Now.
This type of movie also allows McDonald to show off the Canadian landscape and play up the stereotype of a harsh, desolate environment that is comprised mostly of wilderness. Like he would later do in Hard Core Logo (1996), the director establishes a sense of place and seems to be gently making fun of while simultaneously romanticizing the trademarks of the Canadian climate.
This romanticism also translates to his view of the characters, in particular Ramona (whom McDonald was courting at the time of filming). For all of the gonzo humour of the movie, McDonald cares about the character of Ramona and this comes through in a wonderful scene where she hangs out with a young man (Tarantino) and his friends in an abandoned drive-in. They dance to the sad, soulful music of the Cowboy Junkies with only the headlights of their cars as the source of illumination. The scene is a touching respite from the random weirdness of the movie.
McKellar’s screenplay also contains some very funny dialogue that occasionally plays on the stereotypical image of Canada forever living in the shadow of the United States. McKellar plays Russel the Serial Killer (although, he hasn’t killed anyone yet) and delivers a monologue partway through the film that acts as a funny riff on the cultural war between Canada and the U.S. “I’m a serial killer…It’s more of an American thing, traditionally, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s like everything else, there’s this colonial attitude about it. That if you want to make it you’ve got to go down to California or something. But I’m going to change all that.” Russel figures that the only options he has to get out a small-town are either becoming a serial killer or a hockey player (but he’s got “weak ankles”). It’s an inspired character with little details—like his business cards and a beeper where he can be reached—that makes him so memorable.
There is a trailer for McDonald’s mockumentary, Hard Core Logo.
Also included is a nine-minute short film by McDonald called “Elimination Dance” (1998), starring McKellar as a man who attends a dance and meets a woman who accidentally causes him to jam a Q-Tip in his ear. Everyone participates in a dance marathon with couples being eliminated for hilariously bizarre reasons like “anyone who’s lost a urine sample in the mail.”
Next up is another McDonald short film entitled “Fort Goof” that runs six and half minutes long. The director holds a casting call for a role in a movie. A roomful of women audition and give all kinds of different readings of the same lines of dialogue.
A small collection of behind-the-scenes photographs can be accessed in the “Photo Gallery” section.
Finally, the highlight of the supplemental material is an audio commentary by actor/screenwriter Don McKellar and the film’s producer Colin Brunton. McKellar and McDonald were originally working on the script for what would later become Highway 61 (1991) when the filmmaker started a documentary on a band. They gave him so much trouble that McDonald asked McKellar to write something else—the result was Roadkill. McKellar and Brunton fondly recount anecdotes about making the movie. This is a good track as both men talk constantly and impart a genuine enthusiasm and humour about their movie.
Roadkill is an excellent example of Canadian cinema. While it adopts a distinctly American genre like the road movie, it remains uniquely Canadian in content (except for the presence of Joey Ramone) and attitude. Bruce McDonald remains one of the unsung heroes of the Canadian film scene, often overshadowed by its more well-known figures, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Denys Arcand. McDonald has remained fiercely independent over the years, supplementing his film career with a prolific one in Canadian television. Roadkill is an excellent example of his early work and an engaging, entertaining movie in its own right.