monte hellman is not quite the household name as terrence malick amongst cinefiles. though some have made superficial comparisons between the two, no one will confuse the two after looking at their films. most have probably heard of two lane blacktop, or the shooting, or china 9 liberty 37, or cockfighter starring warren oates. the last one is described as a southern action drama about cockfighting, it has perhaps the best tagline of all time: “he came into town with his cock in hand, and what he did with it was illegal in 49 states.”
road to nowhere is his first feature film since 1988’s iguana, unless you count the direct-to-video silent night deadly night 3 in 1989. in addition to teach film at california institute of the arts, he is also one of the executive producers of reservoir dogs, and directed a short for the horror anthology film trapped ashes. he was also supposed to direct elmore lenoard’s freaky deaky to be produced by tarantino though it never happened.
in the flawless opening sequence, we see dominique swain (face/off, adrian lyne’s tv’s lolita 1998) putting a dvd titled road to nowhere into a laptop. the camera then closes in the laptop screen until it fills the whole frame. we are then watching the movie within the movie, both with the same name. the movie within the movie shows shannyn sossamon (a knight’s tale, 40 days and 40 nights, the rules of attraction, more importantly kiss kiss bang bang) painting and drying her nails in real time. we follow this movie within a movie for more than ten minutes before we go back to the swain scene. it also sets the tone, pace, structure, and theme for the following two hours. it’s interesting that the only opening credits we see is the one for the movie within the movie, a Mitchell Haven picture. no, the initials are not coincidental.
after the footage of mitch’s version of road to nowhere, we are back to monte’s version during which we learn that swain’s nathalie post is a blogger who wrote and sold a local crime story to hollywood. the movie is directed by mitchell haven, played by tygh runyan (snakes on a plane). sossamon plays an unknown actress who got the part of velma, the femme fatale of post’s screenplay, which is in turn based on the real life event, an event that involves foreign politics, politicians, betrayal, infidelity, and double murder. there’s also insurance investigator bruno, played by waylon payne (jerry lee lewis from walk the line) who tags along through all of mitch’s filmmaking adventures.
the issue of plot summary in reviews is a recurring theme here. a couple posts ago, i stated that it’s always the most uninteresting part of any reviews, both in writing and reading. most movies work best when one doesn’t have any idea or pre-conceived notions of the film they are about to see. there’s also the obsession with spoilers. this time i would like to hide behind those reasons and also throw my hands up. having seen road to nowhere twice and having it played in the background as i am writing this, i honestly have no idea how to properly do a plot summary for it.
what i can safely say is that not only is road to nowhere a film about filmmaking, it also belongs in the subgenre of films that the source material they are adapting ironically (or maybe not) reflects the dynamics of the people making the film. there have been plenty of films about filmmaking, though most of them are comedies. there have also been many instances where the stage play/dance/opera mirrors those making them. road to nowhere technically falls under these categories but not in an obvious way. though those things happen in this movie, obvious is not the word anyone would use to describe it.
this film is unique in that hellman craved a nice one-of-a-kind path for himself. it’s not the torture artists films about filmmaking like 8 1/2, or the genre exercise like de palma’s blow out or the underrated mute witness, nor is it a satire like altman’s the player, living in oblivion, or mamet’s state and main (though there are humor regarding filmmaking). it’s similar to david lynch’s mulholland drive minus the artsy, dreamy and some say pretentious shots. mostly, it reminds me of the overlooked richard rush movie the stunt man, turning the fiction vs. facts, dreams vs. reality formula on its head, and the insane obsession one could have/need when creating art.
like most directors who came of age in the 70s, hellman is not afraid to hold on and linger on a shot. based on internet comments and message boards, that makes it hard to sit through for modern audience. to these people, i’m not going to follow the popular internet tradition and say “go watch transformers instead” cause i’ve only seen the first one. but i will say that the camera itself is an object and it’s what you do with it that counts. having sat through countless a.d.d./demographic pandering action/based on picture book movies that try to be video games, i don’t see why it can’t go the other way and have movies that are deliberately paced. idiocracy is a movie, it doesn’t necessarily have to be our future.
another complaint people have is that they don’t understand the plot after the movie is over. i don’t know if people noticed the title of the movie. without spoiling the movie, yes, it is somewhat confusing. it didn’t occur to me late in the movie that an actor is playing two characters. it further mystifies me when in an interview, hellman said that two actors in the movie are actually playing two different characters. that’s four total. but to dwell on plot would be missing the point. the film-within-a-film would have been a good coen brothers movie. the twist at the end would have been enough for m. night shyamalan. hellman is reaching further than that, utilizing the twisty noir story to pinpoint the very idea of movies, we in the audience buying into the creation of another reality. something that probably a film school teacher could come up with.
that kind of got out of hand. but one more thing: in typical sequel-craving culture (we want something different, but not too different) and passive-aggressive fanboy mentality (fuck me hard, but not too hard), i don’t see how one can embrace obvious minor brain teasers like the usual suspects, donnie darko, momento, and inception and simply brush off road to nowhere. and for such a “religious” country, it makes sense that people prefer to be told of the unknown rather than accepting the fact that there are things that are unknown. if you are part of the latter group, and have ever wanted to make your own movie, road to nowhere is for you.
no talking heads were harmed during the making of this movie.
road to nowhere is currently available on netflix instant.