There’s a sentiment I often hear at the moment, that there’s a certain era of filmmaking that’s past. Where you could just stumble across a masterpiece and when genuinely strange and brilliant films could get released. People basically jacking off the nostalgia of the 60s and 70s tell me this. I’m looking at you Quentin, yes you. This is, of course, complete fucking poppycock. I watched Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway on a whim after I got informed Arrow Video had added a lot of fascinating titles to its online streaming library including this one, and all I knew was what they told me about it, two sentences, “don’t watch this with your family”, and “don’t watch this intoxicated because it will melt your brain”, oh how naive I was to think they were exaggerating… Through this turn of events though, I have stumbled onto one of the best films of the year…
Jesus Shows You The Way to The Highway is a delirious sci-fi action flick, that with a very modest budget conjures up a vision of a totally different world that, although it is silly, is utterly convincing and immersive. It follows a secret CIA outpost in an alternate future where the Cold War is still going on. Through a digital psychic terminal they enter a strange nether world where the real world seems to be totally replicated in physical cyberspace. The avatars you use wear paper masks to imitate the bad graphics of Tomb Raider era video games, (super delightful), and walk-in little jittery busts. The CIA agents use this portal to try and track down a virus called “The Soviet Union”. The two agents are played with varyingly silly accents by Agustín Mateo and the film’s magnetic lead actor Daniel Tadesse.
Actor Daniel Tadesse shot to prominence as a figure in cult film with Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway director Miguel Llansó’s 2015 debut film Crumbs, a surreal and poetic Ethiopean post-apocalyptic film, and honestly, Tadesse is far and away the best part of Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway. Despite his unconventional appearance he is endlessly charismatic and delivers his performance with a startling gravitas that during the film’s more outrageous moments keeps the film anchored in character drama, taken seriously by him and him alone as an actor. All the other characters seem to be doing the Team America: World Police thing of dialogue delivered with pastiche seriousness as the film is parodying traditional Cold War and Soviet epics like Doctor Zhivago and The Hunt For Red October very clearly, combined with a Lanthimosian deadpan aesthetic that sets the whole film on a tonal knife-edge. It runs this knife-edge between emotional sincerity, parody, and bombast super smartly and effectively by the by. I would honestly love to see Tadesse in movies where his appearance isn’t used as a tonal shorthand to undercut seriousness, just give the man a great straight role please, he can take it.
That element of seriousness is super worth highlighting. The film does have proper themes that it works in like religious satire, the questioning of reality, and ennui. There are many moments in the film where nothing silly is happening so the film just takes a moment for you to sit in the melancholy tone that it has then constructed. Amongst the practical fondue of variously, kung-fu fights, Tron style computer possession, conspiracy espionage, and war breaking out in Africa, the film does take its own story seriously. Which I suppose one has to in this context lest it just become fluff and throw-away.
That is not to undersell the silliness and why it works. The strange sci-fi world it creates is so endlessly enveloping. The way the rules of the world slowly unfold using clever twists and turns is fascinating. The action and punching are genuinely well done. The political satire and religious existentialism are genuinely well thought out and cleverly deployed. Most of all though the wackiness is delightfully wacky! From a resort for human-sized fly assassins, to two Ethiopian warlords who just pray whenever anything goes wrong, to credit cards in this netherworld that you scan with your eyes. It’s all so fascinating.
At the end of the day the thing about this movie is that you can’t narrow it down to just a single attraction. If you want the wacky, the film has the wacky, if you want the brainy and intelligent subtext, the film provides, if you want a fascinating alternate future sci-fi world, the film has an excellent sci-fi world, and the acting is delightful! It’s also shot beautifully. If you want to know what it would look like if Kuei Chih-Hung adapted Phillip K Dick, then this is the film of the year for you. It’s so imaginative, and delightful, cheap but cheerful and it knows exactly what it wants to be. It knows exactly what it wants to be, and it executes being that with the utmost of efficiency, but most importantly, a love of life and sheer joy that they get to make movies.
It’s just amazing.