I recently finished reading film critic Roger Ebert‘s memoirs “Life Itself”. In it, he shares a few tips for reviewing movies. Among these, one describes his approach to films he find hard to grasp: just describe what you see.
Road to Nowhere starts with someone inserting a disc into a laptop. On the disc is scribbled the words “Road to Nowhere”, and a film starts playing on the computer screen. Is it this film? We now see a woman (Shannyn Sossamon) sitting on a bed blow-drying her nails. This shot lasts for quite a while. Cut to an exterior shot of the house. A man arrives by car and enters the house. The camera lingers on the building for a long time, and then a gun shot is heard. Exit the woman and roll intro credits as she gets in the car and drives away. The intro credits include no recognizable names, not even Sossamon’s. The woman stops in a tunnel, gets out of the car and cries. Back in the car for more driving, until she stops again at a lake. Exit car once more and regard the lake, until a plane crashes into the water.
So begins Road to Nowhere, a dense and intricate neo-noir that always withholds a crucial piece of the puzzle from the viewer. Or maybe half the pieces. It’s a film that seem to demand a rewatch to comprehend, but on second thought, maybe it won’t. The film constantly toys with us, featuring a very meta film-within-a-film plot with characters shifting motivations and intentions from scene to scene. Right from the get-go, we’re forced to question whether what we see is reality or not, and whether the two just might be one and the same.
The plot circles around a crime, or a multifold of them. Insurance fraud, homicide and/or double suicide may be ingredients. Velma Duran and Rafe Tachen were the perpetrators. A film is being made about the case, with one Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) as the director. He casts unknown actress Laurel Graham (Sossamon) in the lead as Velma, sensing that she’s a perfect fit for the part. She seems oddly reluctant to take the job but does so anyway. Mitchell and Lauren instantly fall in love, and their relationship will take its toll on the movie production where people starts grumbling about favoritism. One scene that calls for shot reverse shot on Lauren and the Rafe actor Cary Stewart (Cliff De Young) instead turns into an extended solo shot on Lauren. Pivotal parts without her gets handled quickly to give more time for Lauren scenes, even though Mitchell insists that she’s perfect in every take. Intrigue is added in the form of consultant Bruno (Waylon Payne with a southern drawl) who seems to be working on the side on investigating the crime.
Back to the real real world. Road to Nowhere is the first feature film by director Monte Hellman in over 20 years. If you’re familiar with him, it’s probably due to his most well-known film Two-Lane Blacktop from 1971. It’s unseen by me, as is the rest of his body of work. I wonder what kind of films he had to have made previously in order to concoct Road to Nowhere. Reading up on the director and the production of this film, it seems many elements might have been inspired by reality, adding yet another layer to the film. As if it needed more. I hesitate to call it impenetrable as there are are times where I think I might start seeing some sense, but then Hellman throws me for another loop.
Comparisons can be drawn to another enigmatic thriller about an actress: David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive. They both feature this conflict between reality and fiction to a great degree, and both defy full understanding. Lynch however seems intent that people take something away from Mulholland Drive (why else include a list of clues with one of the DVD releases?). That film has a mystery that we’re meant to solve, to some extent. Road to Nowhere is less clear about its intentions. A more immediately noticeable difference between the two movies lies in what the stories present. Mulholland Drive concerns itself with Hollywood romanticism. The following aren’t words I’d normally apply to Lynch, but that film is glossy and glamorous, not in tone but in its content. Road to Nowhere is its more grounded indie sibling. Here there are no boogymen hiding behind diners, no madly grinning pensioneers and no mysterious blue boxes. There’s crime, a movie production and an intangible sense of lurking danger.
And then there’s Shannyn Sossamon. I’ve always been very fond of her since I first saw her. Admittedly for mostly superficial reasons (she has my favorite smile in Hollywood), but she showed talent in the tricky and underrated Rules of Attraction. For the last few years she’s been relegated to TV shows and shitty horror films, but hopefully Road to Nowhere will be a turning point. The dual role of Lauren and Velma is her most challenging work to date, and her best too. It’s not an extravagant performance but an internal one, constantly churning and finding little ways of showing when it’s Sossamon acting and when it’s Lauren acting. If there is a key to unravelling the movie (or at least individual parts), Sossamon might very well be it. The rest of the cast all do their roles effectively, with Cliff De Young in particular impressing me with a similar if smaller double part.
Should you see this film? Yes, if it sounds like it’s your thing. Critics have mostly responded favorably, while public reception has been more of a mixed bag. I know I liked it. Its mysterious nature is one that fascinates and engages, even though the payoff might not fully deliver. The title might thus seem apt, but a road to nowhere still involves a journey, and what a journey it is. I have no idea what Hellman and writer Steven Gaydos were trying to say with this film, but I find myself wanting another crack at it in the future.