Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman, 2010)
Like everyone else, I knew the name Monte Hellman thanks to his cult favorite Two-Lane Blacktop (which stars a young James Taylor, of all people); I had no idea he was still making movies until a few years ago, at which point I set out to try and track a few down. Netflix Instant Streaming was my friend, first pointing me to the anthology flick Trapped Ashes, of which Hellman’s entry is the best by a country mile, and then to this wonderful little talk-piece-cum-slow-thriller, the kind of avant-garde nightmare that tends to make fans of more accessible thrillers cringe (thus, I would assume, its low ratings at the usual suspects; 5.5 at IMDB, 38% public on Rotten Tomatoes—but, as I am fond of noting when I see it, the gulf between the public and the critical receptions to this movie is massive. The critical rating at RT: 79%). I’ll add to the gap: I think it’s goddamn brilliant, though I have to agree with Roger Ebert’s pithy quote that the film “plays like an exercise in frustrating audiences.” This is a thriller for Apichatpong Weerasethakul fans, at least if I am any yardstick to judge by.
Steven Gaydos (All Men Are Mortal)’ script is an ensemble piece masquerading as a straightforward thriller. The surface plot: a hot young filmmaker, Mitchell Haven (Snakes on a Plane‘s Tygh Runyan), heads into the backwoods of the deep south to make a movie based on a local unsolved mystery. He finds, and casts, a leading lady who seems to be everything he could want for his movie, Laurel Graham (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang‘s Shannyn Sossamon); she knows all kinds of trivia about the crime even Mitchell is unaware of. Eventually, that leads to the question: is Laurel Graham actually Velma Duran, the supposed culprit?
But trying to give you an easy synopsis of a Monte Hellman movie strikes me as being as frustrating, and as spurious, an exercise as trying to do the same with a film by one of Hellman’s contemporaries, Jon Jost. It’s not a casual comparison; I get the same things from Jost’s filmic exercises, those I’ve seen anyway, as I do from Road to Nowhere. The plot wanders in and out of focus as other interesting subplots take to the fore, almost as if something interesting had caught the director’s eye and he said “hey, let’s take this out and see where it goes if we let it wander off down its own road.” That can be an exercise, for some viewers, in beating one’s head against the wall. This isn’t Steven Seagal action movie stuff, the kind of movie where a committee goes over the script and the first question they ask about every scene is “how does this scene advance the main plot?”. That’s the kind of advice you get in how-to-write books, and if you’re looking to appeal to the Hollywood-loving masses, it’s valuable advice. But Road to Nowhere is something different. Hellman was looking for art, I think. My head keeps coming back to Jon Jost; there is a lot of meat on the bone of comparing Road to Nowhere to Jost’s similar wandering thriller Last Chants for a Slow Dance, methinks.
Putting all that aside and looking at the technical aspects of the film, the things that are going to keep the non-art-school kids interested, well, there’s not much to complain about; Hellman pulled together an exceptional cast (John Diehl, Dominique Swain, Cliff de Young, and Waylon Payne round out the principals), put them all in front of award-winning Spanish cinematographer Josep Civit (Anguish), and let them all do what they do best. Are you going to like it? I can’t tell you that. Did I? I loved it. This is the kind of movie that, if you see it with a group of friends in an otherwise-deserted theater, will have you sitting in the dive bar next door until closing time arguing about it. Loudly. *** ½
“I love a good romantic murder mystery thriller type movie”, the uploader says…