Road to Nowhere (Monterey), Monte Hellman’s first feature in 21 years, is a film about making a film and a film within a film, with an unknown actress (played by Shannyn Sossamon) hired to play a role in a film based on a murky true story about a politician who embezzled $100 million and disappeared with a young woman. From the opening scene, as a journalist drops a DVD (titled “Road to Nowhere”) into a laptop and watches a film (complete with fictionalized credits) roll out, the lines between the characters, the actors and the levels of stories within stories are blurred. The mystery of the missing politician and the stolen money that inspires the screenplay segues into a story about the mystery of cinema and the nature of stories and storytelling.
There’s plenty of nods to films and filmmaking and the conventions of storytelling laced through the picture via film clips and layered references. And when the director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan), the director of the film “Road to Nowhere” within the film Road to Nowhere, is asked by Variety editor Peter Bart (played by real-life Variety editor Peter Bart) “Do you feel a little rusty in any way?” and he answers “A little. I’m just glad to be back on track,” it could be a comment on Hellman’s own career. Or an in-joke for folks in the know. Or maybe a personal nod to Hellman by screenwriter Steven Gaydos, a longtime friend who wrote the script for him.
Self-reflexivity is not an end to itself but Hellman weaves the references back and forth between “reality” and film representation, actors and characters, and playing roles within roles, with a pattern akin to an optical illusion. We’re never really sure what we’re looking at and trying to piece together our understanding of the story is part of the engagement. That may frustrate viewers looking for guidance and, well, Hellman isn’t big on clarity or momentum, but it fascinates me. His images are as rich as paintings and at times about as still as paintings as well, which draws attention to the smallest details of a scene. Most contemporary American filmmakers seem unable to stop and watch a character simply be in their environment. Road to Nowhere revels in stillness and restraint, both from the camera and the actors (watch the clip below for an example). Hellman finds the most revealing moments between the beats of action, where characters at rest let their facades down. Or maybe they just put on a different mask.
That said, the performances are the weakest element of the film. Sossamon is a perfectly competent actress with a striking face and evocative physicality of presence, yet in these long scenes of waiting and watching, she is superb, suggesting a well of anxiety and complications under the enigmatic expression that carries through the various roles she plays within each level of story. Cliff De Young is fine as the actor hired to play the corrupt Senator who remains the professional even as he sees his role get whittled down as the director falls for his leading lady but Waylon Payne is simply out of place as the local guide with a deeper connection to the crime and Dominique Swain is awkward and out of place, never really carving a character out of her journalist blogger, a figure that remains more of an idea than a person.
And then there’s Tygh Runyan, who remains a blank, not particularly convincing as a creative artist or a man in love. But he does deliver the film’s defining line with a slow burn of rage that is terrifying: “You shouldn’t have brought a gun into the scene,” he says, as if his life is just another movie and the consequences of his actions are, well, just another twist in the script. Which it is. And it isn’t.
The DVD features a 15-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, a perfectly adequate but piece with interviews with a few of the stars and with screenwriter Steven Gaydos (but not Hellman), and a 13-minute audience Q&A with the director from a festival screening. The Blu-ray for some reason omits the featurette and instead features a 14-minute video interview with Shannyn Sossamon. The video quality of all the supplements are decidedly lo-fidelity and the production is a step below professional caliber.