Road to Nowhere Review
Road to Nowhere marks a return to feature filmmaking for Monte Hellman after an absence of twenty-one years. He hasn’t been entirely quiet during that time - there was his contribution to the little-seen anthology film Trapped Ashes alongside the likes of Ken Russell and Joe Dante; an editing job on George Hickenlooper’s massively underrated The Killing Box; his role as executive producer on Reservoir Dogs; and, like many filmmakers, an involvement in the DVD releases of his earlier works, notably putting together some of the extras on Criterion’s edition of Two-Lane Blacktop. But such credits have only served to remind us just how long it had been since the last Hellman film proper and the fact that we hadn’t been treated to another classic like Blacktop. Admittedly that previous feature had been the unlikely, and unfortunate, Silent Night Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!, a dismal entry in the eighties slasher franchise that nonetheless survived another two instalments. Yet this trashy straight-to-video horror was surely the odd one out, a rare blip on a filmography peppered with gems; not just Blacktop, but also that remarkable pair of Jack Nicholson Westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, and 1974’s Cockfighter, which gave Warren Oates one of his very finest roles.
Road to Nowhere goes some way to proving this, eschewing the genre norms of Silent Night Deadly Night III for a style that is distinctly Hellman’s own. The stripped-back nature that was so important to the Nicholson Westerns, say, or 1988’s Iguana (surely the least flamboyant pirate movie ever made) is in full force, creating a film that exists in a familiar realm yet takes us down some unfamiliar paths. Instead of the Western or the pirate movie, here it is that neo-noir that comes under the director’s gaze, effectively making Road to Nowhere a late entry to the nineties cycle of post-modern takes on the genre. Except that coming from Hellman this doesn’t really matter - his Westerns are like no others, his road movie was like no other, and so it is that his films exist outside of trends or cycles; they are so singular that comparisons are rarely necessary. With that said, one such mention does serve a purpose: Raul Ruiz’s Shattered Image. This was a rare English-language excursion for the prolific Chilean director and a surprising one given that it was a late-nineties erotic thriller (a genre with some crossover with neo-noir). Yet to watch the film was to definitely watch Ruiz; it may have contained elements readily apparent from its softcore stablemates, but it remained very much its director’s work. So too Monte Hellman and Road to Nowhere.
The plot revolves around real life events: a double suicide sparked by embezzlement and corruption in a small town. He was a politician who crashed his plane following the fall-out of fraud and murder. She was a more deceptive character; all we know is her name - Velma Duran - and that she may have faked her own death. The case was covered by a young blogger who sides with the conspiracy theories and they bleed into Road to Nowhere. The film takes us through the key moments leading up to their (faked) deaths, favouring long takes, plenty of mystery and noir-ish air of moody lighting and fatal encounters. Initially Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson were considered for the lead roles, but the Road to Nowhere’s fiercely independent director instead opted for comparative unknowns; the lead actress, Laurel Graham, having only appeared in a cheapo horror flick.
Except Laurel Graham is only the lead actress of the film-within-a-film, also entitled Road to Nowhere and gifted its own credit sequence right at the start of the picture. Such a move on Hellman’s part hopefully demonstrates just how intertwined the two Road to Nowheres are; on the one hand we’re getting the film described above, on the other we’re getting its making of, with Shannyn Sossamon playing Graham and familiar faces such as John Diehl, Cliff de Young and Hellman regular Fabio Testi also putting in an appearance. These two levels (to which we can add a third, that of the ‘real life’ events from the film-within-a-film’s reality) never quite interact in a clear-cut manner, with easy delineations or a helping hand for the viewer. Scenes which appear to be genuine are interrupted by a “Cut!” by director Mitchell Haven (note the initials), played by Tygh Runyan. Scenes which we assumed to be real earlier on are then replayed in a different manner, suggesting both the slippery nature of the facts as we see them and the ever-mutating nature of a film in production. Either way, our grip on Road to Nowhere is a tenuous one.
It’s important to stress that Hellman isn’t particularly concerned with providing simple solutions. His is a film more interested in interpretations than answers. Certain moments seem to deliberately confuse or confound, but there is also an openness to Road to Nowhere that allows the viewer a freedom in terms of how they choose to approach the film. Questions of identity, complicity, linearity and reality are central to both the feature as a whole and the film-within-a-film, yet they can be taken in a number of ways. What is fact and what is fiction? Who knows what? Who knew whom? Is there a connection between Laurel and Velma? Despite having just stated that comparisons are largely redundant when it comes to Hellman, here’s another: with the focus on filmmaking, a central female character and the use of digital cameras, it’s tempting to evoke David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Yet whilst these surface details prompt the connection, it’s the air of mystery which provides the strongest link. Hellman’s distinctive style wins through, and as such he doesn’t have to resort to a second-hand imitation of Lynch’s patented weirdness, but in the case of Road to Nowhere he does appear to have borrowed his sense of the uncanny. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is a definite strangeness contained within the film - perhaps it is simply owing the many mysteries and questions provoked, and the lack of readily supplied answers.
Not that this is simply a dry exercise in the mode of film as puzzle. Certainly, Hellman encourages our consideration - long takes, quiet moments - though not at the expense of a more playful side. As a film about filmmaking it naturally possesses a self-reflexive touch or two. Noir, for example, gets a mention early on, only for the response to be “Don’t ever use that word again.” Meanwhile the film-within-a-film, thanks to its independent status and use of digital photography, understandably shares many facets with Road to Nowhere proper, thus prompting many a sly nod as we should expect from a man who went twenty-one years without directing a feature. Also worth noting are the odd lapses into bad acting and lines such as “Who wrote this shit?” - more sly nods from Hellman or perhaps an attempt at pre-empting the critics? However you interpret such moments, there’s no denying a certain amount of humour underneath it all.
Of course such considerations are simply another layer to what is already a complex work. And the fact that I’m unable to know quite how to interpret them - not because there are no answers, but because there are so many possibilities - is only going to invite repeat viewings. There’s too much to devour in a single sitting, though that’s not to say that the main qualities don’t immediately shine through. This is a fine, fascinating work and welcome return for Hellman. Only time will tell if Road to Nowhere gains the same regard as The Shooting, say, or Two-Lane Blacktop; the various attributes are in place, it simply needs to find an audience. At the time of writing the film has yet to pick up a distributor in the UK, though any self-respecting film fan shouldn’t have a problem in going down the import route.
Road to Nowhere was released onto US Blu-ray and DVD by Monterey Video in August. Unable to confirm the region coding for either, I opted to play it safe and go for the DVD - and now that I have the disc to hand I can state absolutely that it is encoded for Region 1, which would therefore suggest likewise for the Blu-ray. Monte Hellman did mention via Facebook that a certain UK label had expressed an interest in Road to Nowhere, though any official confirmations (or denials) have yet to emerge. Needless to say, purchasers from the UK unable to wait for British distribution should definitely ensure that they have multi-region playback.
Both Blu-ray and DVD come with the same extras meaning that it is only the presentation which will differ between the two. Unable to comment on the HD offering, I can at least confirm that the standard def edition looks really rather pleasing. Road to Nowhere was shot digitally and without the highest of production values, yet this doesn’t prevent a strongly cinematic look. (Compare the film to the trailer on the disc and you’ll notice that a certain filmic sheen has been applied to the feature in post-production.) The DVD ably recreates that look with strong colours, solid blacks - undoubtedly a requirement for this film - and natural skin tones. Technical flaws are minimal, such as compression artefacts making themselves known from time to time, albeit never to any problematic degree. The occasional subtitles (as when the scene from The Seventh Seal plays) are also situated somewhat low in the frame which may affect those whose televisions/monitors suffer from overscan. Otherwise, no issues worth mentioning. Needless to say, we also get a widescreen presentation, anamorphically enhanced, whilst the original Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is maintained on the soundtrack. It’s a solid mix, ably handling the dialogue-heavy nature of the film without sacrificing the score. The odd intrusion of a song (either within the scene or on the soundtrack) is similarly dealt with in this crisp, clean, unobtrusive fashion. Note, however, that optional subtitles for the hearing impaired or otherwise are not available.
There are two main extras on the disc, a 15-minute featurette and a 14-minute Q&A session with Hellman recorded at the Nashville Film Festival (topped off with an awards presentation to the director). The former follows the standard ‘behind the scenes’ of mixing up interviews with B-roll footage, but it’s more engaging than most given the mysteries of the film at hand. Various cast members try to unravel their own questions or to pin down the strangeness, whilst writer Steven Gaydos understandably offers up a more authoritative take without actually giving anything away. The Q&A is a much rougher piece - single camera, poor light and poor sound; Hellman’s microphone doesn’t even work at the start - but maintains interest nonetheless simply as it allows the director to talk away for the duration (when Gaydos allows him the mic!), both on Road to Nowhere itself and his career as a whole. Supplementing these pieces we also find the trailer and some cross-promotional pieces for other Monterey Video releases.