The Films Of Bruce McDonald

roadkill

Bruce McDonald’s career confounds auterist criticism’s tendency to boil down a director’s work to a single idea or a recurring set of themes. His diverse career encompasses road movies, punk rock films, horror movies and poignant character studies. In 2001, Playback magazine’s poll of fifteen “all time best Canadian movies”  featured Hard Core Logo (1996) at number two and Highway 61 (1991) at number fifteen. Box office returns and allocated budgets, though, do not necessarily reflect McDonald’s high standing among industry professionals (who voted in the poll) or the devotion of his fans.

A native of Ontario, McDonald began experimenting with a Super 8 camera at an early age, making several amateur pieces before enrolling in the film program at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Roadkill, his 1989 debut feature, won the prize for “most outstanding Canadian film” at TIFF. Valerie Buhagiar stars as a record company intern searching for a rock band who have gone AWOL and abandoned their tour’s schedule. During her search she meets a host of eccentric characters including a killer played by Don McKellar (who also wrote the film’s screenplay). Highway 61 followed two years later; another idiosyncratic road movie again starring Buhagiar and McKellar.

If Roadkill and Highway 61 were very much of a piece, then McDonald’s next move showed his tendency for unpredictability. Dance Me Outside (1994) adapts WS Kinsella’s short stories about life in a First Nations reserve. Negative reviews suggested that the film appropriated Native Canadians as glamorized, exotic figures positioned for a fetishizing gaze, or that it relied on old, negative stereotypes of violence and drunkenness. Kinsella himself was reportedly unhappy with the film, but despite the controversy, the film spawned a successful television spin-off The Rez (1996-98).

Hard Core Logo is a mock-documentary about the reunion tour of an ageing punk rock band. Comparisons with Spinal Tap are inevitable, but Hard Core Logo provides a more hardbitten take on the rock music documentary, more self-destructive and at times despairing. As well as the intensity of gigging and touring, the film documents the unavoidable ego clashes, the boredom of life on the road, and the excesses of the rock lifestyle. McDonald’s sense of the absurd is also on display here, especially in the scene where the band experiment with LSD.  The film was eventually followed by Hard Core Logo 2 in 2010.

McDonald’s most compelling rock music related movie – and likely his best film – is 2010’s Trigger. Hard Core Logo‘s character Billy Talent has a cameo. However, the testosterone-fuelled aggression and grotesquerie of that film is exchanged for a bittersweet sense of regret as two estranged indie rock stars reunite after several years apart. Molly Parker and Tracy Wright play the two musicians, whose friendship has been severely strained by the pressures of fame, and whose lives have been marred by addiction. Wright, a much admired figure of film and theatre,  passed away shortly after filming was completed, giving the film an elegiac quality.

McDonald’s experiments with split-screen effects are also notable. His 2001 thriller Picture Claire went straight to video, despite the well-known American stars (Juliette Lewis, Gina Gershon and Mickey Rourke) and was judged by McDonald himself to be a failure. However, it innovatively used a multi-screen technique, showing the same event from multiple perspectives. At the very least, Picture Claire was a dry run for the use of this technique in 2007’s The Tracey Fragments, which examines the life of a teenage runaway. Here the split-screen functions far more effectively, as it conveys the fragmented nature of Tracey’s story. Starring Ellen Page and released shortly after her breakthrough film Juno, it jarringly juxtaposes the harsh realities of Tracey’s life with her adolescent fantasies. In an intriguing move, McDonald released the film’s raw footage online and invited fans to produce their own audiovisual remixes of the film.

Pontypool (2008) is a slick modern horror film based on a novel by Tony Burgess. A handful of characters are besieged in a radio station by a mob of zombie-like killers, but in an intriguing twist the frenzy of bloodlust is caused by a virus that affects language. Despite McDonald’s close connection to the Canadian indie rock scene, it’s not a rock station under attack but a talk radio station, fronted by a misanthropic, whiskey-soaked shock jock (Stephen McHattie). The film begins with a rippling sound wave on screen and the McHattie’s gravelly voice on the soundtrack. This opening was originally the idea for the whole film: just a sound wave and audio documenting the station’s siege. Such a decidedly un-cinematic form would no doubt have been commercial suicide, while the more familiar “base under siege” trope allows McDonald to demonstrate his capacity for suspense and terror.

McDonald’s most recent films are The Husband (2013) and Hellions (2015). The Husband deals with the psychological effects of envy and obsession; it profiles a man’s struggle to keep perspective in the wake of his wife’s infidelity. Hellions, meanwhile,  returns to horror; a young woman is trapped in her home by a horde of trick-or-treaters. Her evening, along with the film itself, become increasingly nightmarish as the tension mounts.

Outside Canada, McDonald has rarely had auteur status conferred upon him, perhaps because he has never courted the elitist proclivities of highbrow critics and other tastemakers. In addition to feature films McDonald has worked extensively in television, directing episodes of the sitcom Twitch City, the teen soap opera Degrassi: The Next Generation and the Canadian/American co-production of Queer as Folk. No doubt working in easily dismissed genres such as sitcoms and teen dramas has also damaged his prospects for international critical canonization.

McDonald’s films retain a devoted following in Canada, and his career shows no sign of slowing down. He has made genre films, cult oddities and reflective character pieces, usually on tight budgets and schedules. In the process, his career reveals not only the vitality, but the commercial realities, of Canada’s national cinema.

NB. This piece was originally written for a book project that didn’t materialise. It is presented here with only the most minimal revisions.

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