There are some films that just defy categorization, or even criticism. Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, now showing at Fantasia 2019, is one of those films. The story encompasses two CIA agents injected into a bizarre video game called Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, where they’re tasked with hunting down a virus known only as “Stalin,” who appears wearing a Stalin mask and is attempting to get his hands on “The Substance.” When Special Agent DT Gagano (Daniel Tadesse) is exposed to The Substance, he’s trapped in the game as his real body goes into an irreversible coma, much to the horror of his wife, Malin. The game takes place in Beta Ethiopia, ruled over by a totalitarian in an Adam West Batman costume, his Italian henchman, and three “kung fu masters” with pasta nicknames. Things get weirder from there.
Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway throws everything at the viewer, including the kitchen sink, the coffeemaker, and most of the stove. There are sequences from kung fu movies, bizarre stop-motion animation with real people, fly creatures right out of Power Rangers, odd English-language dubbing, and, yes, Jesus. The plot hangs together by a thread, as Gagano attempts to navigate a world that is only slightly stranger than the one he comes from in a bid to escape the game, reunite with his wife, and open a pizza shop. The overlapping of two realities—or maybe three—becomes increasingly confused as the film goes on, and by the end the viewer might not be certain what they just watched, or what it meant.
There’s no doubt that this is unique and even, in places, innovative. Using stop motion animation on human actors, their faces covered by cut-out masks of famous people (including Robert Redford, Richard Pryor, and Margaret Thatcher), is a strange and unnerving concept, but it works oddly well. The combination of B-movie aesthetics, art house connections, and throwback video game elements makes for an odd, not always coherent mélange of referentiality and originality. The plot arc between sequences at times feel ancillary, at best, and there are huge swaths of the film that seem to hardly fit into the basic plot threads.
Does it work? Yes, in its own weird, not always pleasant way. The strangeness is certainly Lynchian—reminiscent of the “Gotta Light?” episode of Twin Peaks: The Return—but with an originality born of language and nation and mashed-up influences that at least keeps the viewer watching to see how the hell this will all be resolved. And there is some resolution, with answers to plot holes and the sudden shifts in perspective that provide at least a little exposition, even as we might wonder what kickboxing and Jesus have to do with all of this.
Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway is directed and written by Miguel Llanso, and filmed as a collaboration between Spain, Ethiopia, and Estonia. Even this perhaps contributes to its sheer oddness, the meshing together of disparate elements, languages, and dubbing techniques. At times, it seems like Llanso just went into his cinematic influences toybox and saw what he could hammer together, regardless of whether or not it made sense. Maybe because of that. Sometimes the film works, sometimes it doesn’t, but always it remains truly baffling.
Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway is what would happen if David Lynch and Melvin van Peebles got high and then collaborated on a script about video games. So, if that’s your kind of thing, go for it.
Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway is at Fantasia 2019 on July 18 and 20.
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