The reemergence of a well-respected filmmaker will always draw the eyes of cinephiles everywhere; these once-master auteurs come out of hiding, hoping to recapture the energy and attention they once had. “The Godfather” auteur Francis Ford Coppola is currently enjoying a second career in film, and though he isn’t making serious bank (“Youth Without Youth” couldn’t even muster up $250,000 domestically), his latest output is some of his best work since the early 1980s. Few are as successful critically as that, and though we all have our dream lists (this writer can’t be the only one hoping for a new Nagisa Oshima), some filmmakers can’t restart the fire they once had — often it feels like they’re trying too hard to either keep up with current stylistic trends or forcing out a passion that they no longer have. Either way, these artistic resuscitations are often only ever seen as complete travesty or modern masterpiece, regardless of how detrimental those extremist labels truly are. Which brings us to this unfortunate question: which camp does “Road to Nowhere” by Monte Hellman (director of the great “Two-Lane Blacktop,” absent from features since 1989) fall into? Depending on your affinity for David Lynch/Claire Denis-type narrative puzzles, it could go either way.
Beginning in one reality, activist blogger Nathalie Post (Dominique Swain, “Alpha Dog“) pops a DVD into her laptop, one holding a movie based on a small-town story she had wrote on. As she navigates the crude undergrad-student-worthy menu, the camera zooms into her computer screen and the movie she’s watching ultimately engulfs the screen, becoming the new reality. Right off the bat things get very tricky to follow, which makes it even rougher to explain, but here we go. Mitch Haven (Tygh Runyan, “Snakes on a Plane“) is directing a film based on a bizarre, noir-ish money embezzlement/murder plot involving Cuban femme-fatale Velma Duran and sleazy politico Rafe Tachen. Haven casts his low-budget piece with your typical hey-it’s-that-guy actors, finding Tachen in actor Cary Stewart (Cliff De Young, “Suicide Kings“) and Duran in the dead-ringer Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon, “A Knight’s Tale“). But as the movie-within-a-movie goes on, Haven becomes inexplicably drawn to Graham and shifts the focus from b-movie pulp thriller to moody, intense character study — with the beautiful Sossamon front and center. And as we progress with the film, the various realities intertwine fluidly, the line between fact and fiction becoming non-existent. Is Laurel Graham playing Velma Duran, or did she fake her death as part of some grand scheme?
Those looking to crack the mystery are barking up the wrong tree, as specific details are scant and there’s seems to be little (if any) difference in how either reality is shot. Despite the near-impossible puzzle, “Road to Nowhere” still manages to entice in its characters and their relationships. Haven and Graham are tender; he’s so infatuated with her beauty and tolerance in watching classic movies with him that he overlooks her questionable acting and (possibly) shady past. Haven and the unnamed writer (played by Rob Kolar) suggest the typical tension among directors and writers (why the heck is he on set in the first place??) but they play it well, never veering off into theatrics but always subtly tense and about to snap. These examples also feel very personal, though it’s admittedly easy to draw comparisons when the main character in a movie is a director sharing the same initials as the actual filmmaker. Still, even those with a passing knowledge of the director might suppose that the main romantic relationship possibly shares an inkling with the one between Hellman and his ‘Two-Lane’ actress Laurie Bird, with a melancholic glaze over the intimate scenes stemming from her suicide in the late 1970s.
‘Road’ also succeeds because the brain-twisting back-and-forth between the film and the film-within never once gets frustrating to the point of abandonment. Those sick of the multiple curveballs by shows like “Lost” will be happy that Hellman is smart enough to refrain from that nonsense; instead, it’s more of a marriage between “Lost Highway” and “The Intruder,” just as opaque and visually metaphorical but sinister in its scenes and sequences, enough to hold the attention of those unwilling to try and attempt to read between the lines. Because the audience can never figure out if an actor is acting or scheming something vile, it feels like the characters we’re watching are either always dangerous or in danger. This adds a layer of anxious terror, one that only becomes more pronounced when Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne), a consultant on Haven’s flick, begins to do some research with Post and becomes sure that the actress playing Duran is actually Duran herself.
Using Canon 5Ds, and embarking to the mountains of North Carolina plus Rome and London, the “Cockfighter” filmmaker and his director of photography Josep M. Civit embrace new, inexpensive technology without ever making the production feel cheap. Coverage is a bit more traditional than Hellman’s previous work (at least figuring ‘Two-Lane,’ which featured plenty of scenes taken care of in single-shot wides) without being journeyman. Each frame is rather gorgeous, and while the script dabbles in some more costly special effects (such as planes crashing and flying around), they get away with corny CGI thanks to his film-within-a-film structure. However, one example of an explosion almost seems directly lifted from “Mortal Kombat 2” (that’s the video game, mind you), and there seems to be little excuse for that minuscule yet noticeable lack of craftsmanship. Even the tiniest budgets could hopefully afford something a bit better (see: “Monsters“).
Let’s not derail and start harping on unfortunate computer graphics that factor little into the overall experience. As much as the form works, those working outside of the narrative and attempting to dissect the dense secrets might come up fairly slight. There’s a lot going on here in terms of fact/fiction, the psyche of a filmmaker, etc. But once all of the obstructions are removed and we get down to the nitty-gritty explanations and intentions, it doesn’t leave much to chew on other than very simplistic ideas. That said, there’s likely much that this writer either mistook, misinterpreted, or just plain ol’ missed. Probably the best thing to say about “Road to Nowhere” is that people will be talking about it, discussing their varied interpretations. Hellman’s return isn’t perfect nor is it a failure, but it’s definitely a solid offering, falling somewhere in between. [B]