When faced with a film that completely defies description, you have to buy into the world the filmmaker has created in order to enjoy the experience. This is often too much of a challenge for mainstream audiences — and while that’s understandable, there’s something liberating about diving into a movie that proudly refuses to stick to the cinematic rules of the road.
One of the most entertaining examples of this “anti-style” surrealism is Miguel Llansó’s Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, which had festival audiences either cheering or staring in slack-jawed confusion (perhaps a combination of both) before it was acquired by Arrow Video, who are screening the film on their own subscription channel. Arrow kindly provided us with a screener — and armed only with a brief synopsis and a baffling trailer (shown below), I chose to go into the film with no preconceptions.
Sure, I knew it was going to get weird… but I had no idea how weird. Imagine for a second that cult icons Alejandro Jodorowsky and John Waters teamed up around 1987 to write and direct The Matrix. If that’s a tough concept to wrap your head around, just bear with me as I try to condense Llansó’s gleefully deranged stream-of-consciousness fantasy into some kind of synopsis.
The core of the story is relatively simple: in an ‘80s version of the year 1997, CIA Agent D.T. Gagano (Daniel Tadesse, an Ethiopian actor with dwarfism and a spinal deformity, who previously starred in Llansó’s 2015 feature Crumbs), and his not-so-trustworthy partner Palmer Eldritch (Agustín Mateo) are trained to access the mainframe of “Psychobook” — essentially an ‘80s version of the internet — through a combination of psychoactive drugs and VR goggles.
On one of their virtual missions, while hunting down a dangerous computer virus known as “The Soviet Union,” the pair are ambushed by this digital enemy — who has the ability to change identities at will, but prefers the face and uniform of Josef Stalin. Eldritch betrays Gagano and bails out of the network, leaving his partner to fight the virus alone… but this proves to be challenging, because their battle with the virus has left Gagano comatose and near death, with only his encoded “inner self” left to solve the mystery inside the ever-shifting realities within Psychobook.
There, that doesn’t sound too weird, does it? Trust me, that’s the most coherent description of Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (from here on, let’s just abbreviate it JSYTWTTH) you’ll ever read.
I won’t spoil all the outrageous surprises that Llansó plants around every corner, but recurring elements include Gagano’s dream of opening his own pizzeria (this dude really loves pizza) with his voluptuous Teutonic wife Malin (Gerda-Annette Allikas), a strip-club bouncer who has a similar dream to start her own kickboxing school; and a blissed-out messiah (Guillermo Llansó) who shows up midway through the film and alternately claims to be either Jesus or an amiable stoner named Roy Mascarone, who has a rather underwhelming cult of well-armed followers who consume a highly addictive green Jello-like drug known only as “The Substance” which has the power to alter reality.
But wait, there’s more: we get a flabby version of Batman named “Batfro” (Solomon Tashe), who is also the ruthless (and clueless) dictator of a country known as “Beta Ethiopia” (filmed in actual Ethiopia), determined to exterminate Gagano after a couple of retired generals declare him to be the country’s liberator. I won’t even try to explain the sudden appearance of two assassins in bug-eyed kaiju fly suits, blasting everyone in sight with death rays, or a trio of computer-savvy kung fu masters named after Italian entrees — because Llansó doesn’t bother to explain them either.
But even the aforementioned catalog of oddities doesn’t begin to describe Llansó’s vision, which is entirely unique. While replicating the look of low-budget ‘80s action, sci-fi and horror movies is a genre in itself (see Turbo Kid and Manborg for some entertaining examples), Llansó’s approach is so deliberately (and hilariously) low-tech, it’s in a class by itself. 8-bit graphics and music emphasize the virtual environment of Psychobook, which itself is depicted as both a TV show (with a different aspect ratio than the widescreen “main” plot) and a video game — including a Mortal Kombat voice-over shouting “Fight!” at the beginning of the film’s many kung fu battles.
Rotary phones, MacIntosh Classic computers, wood paneling and console televisions litter every location, cranking up the ‘80s kitsch to outrageous levels. Some of the film’s best moments occur in “game” mode within the system, where the agents and their enemies are portrayed by actors wearing paper masks of various celebrities (Gagano prefers Richard Pryor, for example, while Eldritch dons a Robert Redford mask), and the actors themselves are animated in a stop-motion “human puppet” style, reminiscent of animator Jan Svankmeyer (Little Otik).
Then there’s the dialogue, which is one of JSYTWTTH’s most hilarious affectations: the international cast — most of whom hail from Estonia, Ethiopia and the UK — do not seem to be too proficient in English, and their lines are entirely dubbed by voice actors who don’t even attempt to inject any personality into the characters. I’m assuming this is a deliberate choice on Llansó’s part, as it replicates the poor dubbing of many imported ‘80s action movies, which fits the tone of the film perfectly.
I’m actually assuming a lot on Llansó’s part — because none of this movie is logically justifiable, other than to whisk the viewer up into a tornado of weirdness that never stops for its 83-minute duration. Even the “twist” ending is less imaginative than the gloriously insane events that build up to it. In the end, my main takeaway is this: the joy of JSYTWTTH is not the story itself, but the way in which it’s told. It plays by its own rules, and if you can get past that notion and play along, you’ll find yourself in a playground of cinematic surrealism that combines the colorful metaphysics of Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain with the affection for oddball characters that characterizes the films of John Waters.
I haven’t seen Llansó’s previous feature Crumbs, but I’ll definitely be seeking it out now… and I’m also ready for the director’s next celebration of the bizarre. But for now, Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway is streaming on Arrow Video Channel through Apple TV and Amazon, along with many more of the genre-friendly label’s library of titles.