REVIEW: Monte Hellman's Road to Nowhere Gets Lost Along the Way
Despite its tai chi pace and genre-friendly characters, it's almost impossible to tell what's happening in the intriguing, intractable Road to Nowhere, Two-Lane Blacktop director Monte Hellman's first feature film in 22 years. And yet individual scenes are often languidly decipherable: The film opens with Shannyn Sossamon -- who plays femme fatale Velma Duran in the film proper and Laurel, a first-time actress playing Velma Duran in the eponymous film being made within Road to Nowhere -- painting and blow-drying her nails in real time. Later, we see healthy chunks of films like The Lady Eve and The Seventh Seal, played as part of a director's private tutoring of his ingénue; they're followed by subdued exchanges about their genius. Hellman's placid long shots belie the film's elaborate tease: Big, pretty swaths of film stitched into an increasingly perverse, unresolved design.
Tygh Runyan plays Mitchell Haven, a Hollywood gun making a true-crime film about a high-level financial scheme that ended in murder and the disappearance and possible suicide of Duran. A young blogger (Dominique Swain) familiar with the case and an insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) sniff around the set and then around each other, the latter fixed on his suspicion that the film's star might also be the missing Duran. Laurel protests her lack of acting ability, but all Haven needs is for her to be her silky, kittenish self, radiating the allure that may be more organic to his story than he imagines. Sassomon, a soulful gamine who hasn't developed the presence to hold down a part that's both as archetypal and ephemeral as this one, feels like an aughts-era indie's feeble answer to the femme fatale, which is fitting enough. As the director's stand-in, Runyan presents a more serious problem: Thick-smiled, Caesar-topped, and given to hushed sincerity, his Mitchell might make a decent life coach. But ascribing the energy and arrogance of authorial vision to a character this benign feels like a bad move for both pictures and all of the narrative fragments floating between them.
Big names -- Leo, Scarlett -- are parachuted into early scenes, and Haven appears in an interview with Variety's Peter Bart (the movie's screenwriter, Steven Gaydos, is the executive editor of that publication). These gestures confuse the already overlayered planes of reality and representation with a passing bid for behind-the-scenes credibility. This is not that kind of film. And yet the scenes that focus on the moviemaking grind -- from courting an actress to running lines to cringing over dailies -- are the most compelling. Road to Nowhere was one of the first films shot on the Canon 5D Mark II camera, and Haven makes it his weapon of choice as well. Its mention is a typical refraction: "Do you feel rusty in any way?" Bart asks Haven. Hellman has said that the suicide of his Two-Lane Blacktop star and lover Laurie Bird informed Road to Nowhere, and this is a film that works best when wandering through a hall-of-mirrors, personally invested world of independent filmmaking.
The central plot, perforated with "Which film am I watching?" rabbit holes, grows wearying by the one-hour mark; the scenes have no continuity, but more importantly no collaborative pull. Each clever turn feels like a revolution away from greater understanding, part of a daring game that goes on too long for interest in the outcome -- and, more fatally, in the characters -- to last.