Monte Hellman is a major American filmmaker, though you might not know that from looking at his resumé. Hellman was part of the new wave of filmmakers who came of age in the 1960s and '70s who were fascinated with the bold, ambitious work coming out of Europe from filmmakers like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Michelangelo Antonioni. However, while movies like Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, Mean Streets, and The Godfather were successful enough to give the men who made them a degree of recognition and a basis for future careers, Hellman managed to earn plenty of critical acclaim without having a hit that would make him bankable. In the mid-'60s, Hellman directed a striking pair of low-budget Westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, and in the '70s he made the cult-favorite Zen road movie Two-Lane Blacktop (still his best-known film), which impressed cineastes yet failed to click with audiences, and shot the tough but lyrical Cockfighter without scoring a breakthrough success. His career since then has been dominated by work as a "film doctor" (helping to reshoot and re-edit troubled productions such as The Greatest and Avalanche Express), supervising second-unit material on large-scale projects (among them Robocop and The Big Red One), the occasional oddball horror flick (Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!), and teaching filmmaking at the California Institute of the Arts. But Hellman hasn't gone away or given up, and the digital technology that's made it easier and cheaper for young filmmakers to shoot feature films has also allowed Hellman to complete his first feature in over 20 years. The result is well worth the wait -- Road to Nowhere is one of the finest films of Hellman's career, a compelling, elliptical work that winds together several stories at once and communicates with striking beauty and intelligence while making a virtue of its unusual structure and narrative complexities.
Road to Nowhere begins with a man and woman watching a DVD on a laptop computer in the visiting area at a prison. The movie they watch begins with a lonely woman doing her nails, a man being shot to death in his home, and a small plane crashing into a lake. We soon learn that the man showing the DVD is Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan), a filmmaker who directed the movie he's showing to Nathalie Post (Dominique Swain), an amateur journalist with a true-crime blog. Haven became fascinated with a story Post was covering about a lawman named Rafe Taschen, who fell in love with Velma Duran, a beautiful younger woman with a sketchy past; they fell into an affair that led to murder, fraud, and a small-town scandal of big-city proportions. Haven wants to make a film about the Taschen affair, and begins crafting a screenplay with the help of his frequent collaborator Steve (Robert Kolar). Haven casts veteran leading man Cary Stewart (Cliff De Young) as Taschen, but while a number of well-known actresses have shown an interest in playing Duran, the director becomes obsessed with Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), a luminous young woman whose film experience consists of one small part in a low-budget horror picture. Though Graham repeatedly insists she's not an actress, Haven isn't taking no for an answer, and after casting her in the lead he falls in love with her, subtly reshaping the story to emphasize her while becoming her lover off-set. Along with Post, Haven has hired Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne), an insurance investigator who worked on the Taschen case, as an advisor, and as the shoot goes on he becomes increasingly obsessed with Graham, convinced her resemblance to Duran is more than a coincidence.
Monte Hellman's best films have been about character and mood rather than a tight, carefully structured narrative, and that's certainly the case with Road to Nowhere. Hellman frequently cuts back and forth between the production of Haven's movie, the film itself, and the backstory of the mysterious Velma Duran, and he's not particularly worried about announcing which lane we're traveling in at any given time. But Hellman shows a master's touch here, and once Road to Nowhere settles into its rhythms, the director proves he's a capable guide who takes us to fascinating places even when they're most unexpected, and gives his actors enough space to fill out the roles with plenty of detail. Shannyn Sossamon is utterly beguiling as a woman whose mysteries grow greater the longer we know her, Tygh Runyan underplays effectively as the director who has fallen into something bigger than he can handle, Waylon Payne gracefully balances charm and menace as Brotherton, and Dominique Swain is spunky and seriously sexy as a gal just a bit too smart for a small town in the Deep South. Road to Nowhere looks rich and inviting, full of burnished color schemes and intelligent play of light and shadow, which seems all the more remarkable since director of photography Josep M. Civit shot the film using a Canon 5D Mark II, a still camera that also captures motion; anyone who still believes that digital cinematography can't look as good as the chemical process of photographic film may have their mind changed by this movie. With the help of editor Celine Ameslon and screenwriter Steven Gaydos, Hellman layers the elements of this movie with a sure hand, and while it sometimes takes a moment to realize where we are, and why, in the story, the results feel honest and absorbing -- this is the strongest and best-realized work Monte Hellman has released since Two-Lane Blacktop. The approach and technique of Road to Nowhere sometimes recall the glory days of 1970s cinema, when filmmakers seemed eager to try anything, but the final product is clearly a work of the here and now, from a filmmaker with plenty left to say. One can only hope Monte Hellman gets a chance to tell a few more unusual stories in his own distinct manner, because Road to Nowhere confirms he's still a gifted artist whose creative voice is as clear and agile as ever before.
Road to Nowhere on AllMovie
Road to Nowhere (2010)