During the first ten minutes of Monte Hellman’s “Road To Nowhere” we hear gunfire. And clear, resonant music. We will see a woman in silhouette: one of the film’s most striking, suspenseful moments. A strange, jaw-dropping event occurs. What are we watching? A movie plays before us but to whom does its story belong? Mr. Hellman’s mysterious, perplexing, ingenious drama delves into grand 1940s noir and emerges as a neo-noir classic. “Road To Nowhere” is at the Roxie through this Thursday, and it’s a must-see.
Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon) is prepping for a role in filmmaker Mitchell Haven’s movie dramatization of a political scandal and murder in North Carolina. Velma Duran is a casualty in this sordid little mess of greed and corruption, the truth of which entertainment and true-crime blogger journalist Nathalie Post (Dominique Swain) is trying to get to the bottom of. Laurel plays Velma, the lead role in Mitchell’s film. Casting is key, Mitchell (Tygh Runyan) reminds a film crew member. Mitchell does what a number of male directors did in the 1940s and what some still do: he falls hard for his leading lady. The presence of other characters is curious. We want to know more. There’s the cheekily-named character Cary Stewart (Cliff De Young), an actor who plays a lead role in the film.
Packed with astute movie references that aren’t idle, “Road To Nowhere” is all about process: the process of moviemaking, the process of lies and the process of revelation. Does the camera always lie? Does the actor? Does fiction supersede fact? Is illusion sexier than truth? Who or what reveals more, the camera or the actor? This film invites endless questions. The ingredients Mr. Hellman’s haunting film mixes are subtle, bold and beautiful. Scenes are a jigsaw puzzle we have to assemble. Which pieces are staged? Which are not? We become the film’s editors in an experience more interactive than nominally “interactive” movies are. There are no buttons on a joystick to press here. “Road To Nowhere”, which occasionally chuckles at Robert Altman’s “The Player” from its sidelines, captures the artifice of truth and the reality of lies in ways that puts “reality TV” to shame.
“Road To Nowhere” is as much a comment on the movies and the love this film has for them as it is about the mystery that surrounds their making. The script is on paper but actors shape and bring it to life, but whose life is brought to life in the film? Mr. Hellman’s masterpiece works as a great “making-of” documentary: the making of myth and the uncovering of a crime that exists in subterfuge. “Road To Nowhere” homogenizes and distinguishes at the same time with its panoply of styles.
With all its events there’s a strange neatness to “Road To Nowhere” that makes the film oddly disconcerting yet necessary. The film’s characters behave like those rooted in 1940s noir. There’s the femme fatale. There’s the boozy man who staggers but has cutting clarity. Note, for example, the way Laurel changes her clothes for a date; how she removes shoes or stockings. The cadence of those movements. The silence that surrounds them. Silences that feel like breaths, tension and anticipation. Watching this sublime presentation I felt like I was watching a dream unfold in someone else’s nightmares. And that’s precisely what “Road To Nowhere” stages. The film itself is not a “dream” but is a fantasy of truth, an infatuation gone horribly wrong.
Steven Gaydos expertly crafts the screenplay for “Road To Nowhere” and satirizes the movie making business which he works in or at least knows much about as a Variety magazine employee. Mr. Gaydos has collaborated with Mr. Hellman in the past, and here he’s written a gangbusters script that crackles with irony and layered double-meanings. The screenplay is finely tuned to the ear of each character and its speech is so disciplined. With all the high-stakes poker this film plays characters never talk over each other. There are no false notes in Mr. Hellman’s drama; only characters’ sour or foul ones.
The bookends of A-to-Z drama are ripped to shreds. What we’re shown is the alphabet soup in between. The marriage between life and art and fact and fiction are blurred so thoroughly you are lost. Along the way lie tell-tale clues about this film’s destination, yet you are surprised by the conclusion. The atmosphere of “Road To Nowhere” smolders. Tom Russell’s music has a soul that’s lucid and so deeply connected to the movie and its surroundings. The music is not background noise. This is a movie that loves movies. And this is a movie I loved. A fascinating experience, “Road To Nowhere” merits a second viewing and even a third, just like the 2001 films “Memento” and “Mulholland Dr.” did. What Mr. Hellman’s film does so well is use its unmistakable voice, one it confidently trumpets every step of the way.
Mr. Hellman, who directed the classic “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971) re-emerges from a 21-year-feature film hiatus after “Better Watch Out!” in 1989 to direct a near-flawless work. In some respects “Road To Nowhere” is a cousin to David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” (1997), one of that director’s best movies. The similar lettering for both films’ ads/posters is no accident. “Lost Highway” involved a love affair, a crime, a metamorphosis and a man who held powerful sway over key characters. Despite some similarities Mr. Lynch’s drama is more surreal, powerful and elusive, an obvious homage to “Vertigo”, and more potent than “Road To Nowhere”, which includes a relevant scene from “The Lady Eve” (1941).
Always entertaining, thought-provoking, and part-love story, “Road To Nowhere” is filled with fine performances, especially from Ms. Sossamon in her dual roles. She has to act as if she’s acting — but without appearing to act as if she is. Ms. Sossamon doesn’t parody, which would have been lazy. She instead takes the challenging route, bringing nuance, intelligence and complexity to two intriguing characters. That’s a darn difficult thing to do in such a multifaceted film, but Ms. Sossamon (“Wristcutters: A Love Story”) pulls it off seamlessly. It’s a performance that merits serious award consideration.
By the way, Ms. Sossamon looks a little like Linda Fiorentino, so good in “The Last Seduction”. As filmmaker Mitchell Haven Mr. Runyan has a staggering likeness to Stanley Kubrick (whose birthday it is today), and played Mr. Kubrick in a short film Mr. Hellman made five years ago. There’s a scene in which the actor is seen choreographing an image the way Mr. Kubrick did on several sets.
“Road To Nowhere”, which is pure, decorative art, seeks your immediate attention. Mr. Hellman’s film is at the Roxie through this Thursday. The big screen is where it must be seen. It’s one of the year’s very best films. Oscar voters, please take note.
Now at the Roxie through Thursday.
With: Waylon Payne, John Diehl, Fabio Testi.
“Road To Nowhere” is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some language and brief violence. The film’s running time is two hours and two minutes.
For more of Omar’s film stories, movie reviews and interviews visit his Popcorn Reel website and watch his unscripted film reviews on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter.
For a list of Omar’s joltleft.com stories and film reviews, click here. He is a contributing film critic for “Ebert Presents At The Movies” on PBS television and also a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
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