Thursday, September 8, 2011

DVD Review: Road to Nowhere

Road to Nowhere *** ½
Directed by: Monte Hellman.
Written by: Steven Gaydos.
Starring: Shannyn Sossamon (Laurel Graham/Velma Duran), Tygh Runyan (Mitchell Haven), Cliff De Young (Cary Stewart \ Rafe Tachen), Waylon Payne (Bruno Brotherton), Dominique Swain (Nathalie Post).

If we lived in a more adventuresome, intellectually curious cinema culture, than Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere would be one of the most talked about and debated films of the years. But we don’t, which is why the aging auteur’s first film in over 20 years has been met mainly with silence from film critics, and audiences have not even heard of it. It’s a shame, because Road to Nowhere is such a fascinating film – one that draws you in deeper, even as it makes clear, from the title and what happens in the film, that the film really is leading us nowhere.

When a filmmaker makes a movie about movies, especially one like Hellman who has struggled his whole career, there is a danger of making a bitter or pretentious movie. But while Road to Nowhere maybe a little of both, it is still a movie in love with movies – the process of making them of watching them, and the single minded determination that both entail. This is one of those meta movies that have a movie within the movie, and perhaps even a movie within the movie within the movie. Or perhaps not. That’s really up to you to decide.

The movie opens with a scene of a woman (Shannyn Sossamon) with a blow dryer in her empty house, where an older man (Cliff De Young) enters, and we hear a gunshot. But then both of them emerge from the house separately. Who is dead? Is anyone? Then we see the man get into his plane, and the woman watch from her car as the plane crashes into a lake. Only then do we find out that the movie we have been watching is not Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, but rather, Mitchell Haven’s (Tygh Runyan)’s Road to Nowhere. The woman is a young actress, Laurel Graham, who has been cast in Haven’s movie about a young woman who gets involved with a corrupt politician, played by movie star Cary Stewart, and apparently die in a double suicide. All of this is based on the a true crime case that Haven found on Nathalie Post’s (Dominque Swain) blog, about her small South Carolina town. Nathalie doesn’t believe the official story about the double suicide, and thinks the real life pair faked their own deaths. And it appears like Haven agrees, and the movie takes that angle up as well. And there is something strange about Laurel – she looks an awful lot like the real woman in the case, so much so that an insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) thinks she IS the real woman. But Haven is blinded by his own growing infatuation with her.

Hellman bounces back and forth between scenes of Haven and company making Road to Nowhere, and scenes from the movie they are making. There is no obvious break between these two story threads, and he only sometimes identifies which scenes are which, when he pulls back to show us the crew and everyone else, watching the scene unfold around them. Somewhere along the way though, I started to get the impression that what we were really watching was not Hellman’s movie about Haven making the movie, with the movie within the movie as a side plot, but Hellman’s movie about Haven making a movie about himself making the movie. Why else do we see two different versions of the plane crash, both apparently from Haven’s movie? And the finale leads me to believe that even more.

A movie like Road to Nowhere is tricky for actors, because they can never give too much away. Hellman obviously did not have the money to put any stars in his movie (although there is an amusing scene of Haven talking about casting Leonardo DiCaprio in his film –“He could do it with some makeup”), but for the most part the performances work. Especially Shannyn Sossamon, who is essentially asked to play at least three (four?) different characters all within her role, and never give away which one is which, while not being so vague as to appear clueless. A few years ago, Sossamon was an “It” girl, but after a few roles, she pretty much disappeared. Here though she proves that is willing to take on a challenging role, and can pull it off.

Can I explain everything that happens in Road to Nowhere? No, I can’t. At least not after only one viewing. This may well be a film like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire, which require you to go back and sort through all the plot threads to discover where each scene actually fits in the different versions of reality. I’m sure someone will do that, because Hellman has long since been a cult figure with a good fan base. But that exercise doesn’t excite me. I don’t even think unraveling the different layers of reality was really Hellman’s point. This is a film about our love for movies, and the complex relationship we have with them, as a viewer or as someone who pours himself into making them. While I cannot say it is a masterpiece on the level of Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, Road to Nowhere is a fascinating film – one that deserves an intelligent audience to give it their full attention.

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