When I think of Monte Hellman I think of cryptic, existential genre films: The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind, Two-Lane Blacktop. What I don’t think of is extremely self-referential critique of a Hollywood-type system. Which is what Road to Nowhere (RTN) basically is.
Outdoing something like The French Lieutenant’s Woman with its film-within-a-film structure, RTN is dense and difficult. It’s also rewarding, beautiful and playful. Here’s the deal:
Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) is a young director starting on a new project. His film is based on real-life events, around which various theories abound. He came to the story via investigative/gossip blogger Nathalie Post (Dominique Swain), which covers the suspicious deaths or disappearances (depending on who you ask) of Rafe Tachen and Velma Duran. Rafe, played by Cliff de Young (who also plays the actor playing Rafe, Cary Stewart) and Velma, played by Shannyn Sossamon (who, you guessed it, also plays the actress playing Velma, Laurel) are shifty characters, and it’s often anyone’s guess if we’re watching the “real” Rafe and Velma, or the actors portraying them.
Haven’s got a few other characters around, including insurance investigator Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne) who is convinced of a conspiracy that involves Laurel in the real-life crimes that Velma may or may not have been involved in.
It’s all pretty mind-boggling, and Hellman and screenwriter Steven Gaydos don’t give us a ton of exposition to work with. The opening 10 minutes feature a series of scenes that do in fact lay some sort of conspiracy out, but nothing is explained beyond the surface existence of these confusing inner-workings.
The inevitable comparisons with Mulholland Drive are only somewhat fair. Sure Sossaman is your Lynch-like “woman in trouble” figure, there’s plenty of Hollywood-izing going on, and the film is less of a puzzle to be solved than to be lost in, but Hellman makes the picture all his own.
One way in which he does this is by emphasizing the mundane when it comes to Velma/Laurel. Consider the stunning opening shot where we simply watch her use a blow-dryer on her hair for a full three minutes. It’s captivating for several basic cinematic reasons – the look, her posturing – but also because, as the shot goes on and on, it becomes despondent and dark. The sound of the dryer starts to echo and grate. Her despair, or at least confusion comes to the forefront. This is a woman in trouble, but we aren’t introduced to that idea via any conventional, or Lynch-like for that matter, method. Instead we are forced to assume so. Her hair is dry, but the dryer is still going.
There are more shots like this. In one, before her first meeting with Haven, we watch Laurel/Velma tie her shoes for almost two minutes. Why all of the mundanity? I don’t think that Hellman is going for some neo-realist duration exercise. Instead, in addition to achieving the aforementioned introduction, I think that he’s trying to counter the movie set mentality, both in real life and in his film. Velma/Laurel is in trouble. So tying her shoes is actually suspenseful, because it prolongs what will happen next (meeting Mitchell, which will put her on the movie set, which will put her in front of Bruno, etc).
One thing that I have to mention at least briefly before I forget: what’s with the weird 5D product placement in the film? In the middle of it Haven literally says out loud “I can’t believe we got two of these Canon 5D Mark IIs for the price of one Viper.” It’s ridiculous. It could be tongue-in-cheek given the setting, but it’s sort of anomalous. I wonder how much money they got from Canon.
Hellman (same initials as Mitchell Haven…) does some cool things to separate out the fiction and reality, or in some cases to further blur it. We see two plane crashes. One crashes into the water, the other into a dam in a burst of flames. It’s supposed to be the same plane. Is one real and the other not? One the movie and the other reality? Two different takes?
Perhaps the best moment of the film comes early on. The entire film is framed by an interview that Nathalie is conducting of Mitchell. Hellman pushes into her computer, on which is the movie that’s he’s just finished editing (also called Road to Nowhere). From there we’re treated to the maze-like structure. At one moment we have a scene in a bar. There’s music in the background. Hellman cuts from the bar back to Nathalie and Mitchell in the interview. The music from the bar bleeds over into their interview. Is the music coming from the computer? Or is it an extended L-Cut from the actual scene? They mean two different things (ie diegetic versus non-diegetic, ie separate realities versus blended spaces). It’s subtle and nicely done.
I have a small beef with Tygh Runyan’s acting and character. I think he’s underplayed and his pseudo-philosophical tangents get boring and laughable. Now sure, he’s supposed to be naive, too wrapped up in his own project, infatuated with Velma/Laurel, but he doesn’t quite pull it off. This is ironic because at one point in the film he stresses how important casting is.
It’s almost impossible to have a SPOILER for this film, but if I’ll give one it’s here. Towards the end, after a whole lot of crap has gone down and we’re all appropriately confused, there’s a shot to another camera crew. Is this Hellman’s crew? Has Haven been making a documentary this whole time? How many cameras can we get in here (not to mention that camera that Haven himself holds up to the window towards the end)? The idea is that there are never-ending viewpoints/perspectives. We’re always making a film, making dramatic moments. It just so happens that the camera catches some of them. But in Hellman’s world there are infinite lenses, making everything a film.