If “Road to Nowhere” had been made by someone else, it would pass unobserved.
Yet the fact that it marks Monte Hellman’s return to feature filmmaking after a 21-year absence assures this patchwork puzzle — of fatal attraction meets fiction-truth conundrum in a briar patch of noir — a built-in (small) audience of the director’s fans and curious festival goers. Everyone else will likely give it a lukewarm reception, though it could do well on DVD.
“Road to Nowhere” is a visually sturdy (with its many slow pans and static shots) film-within-a-film that throws winks and nudges at the illusory nature of both art and reality as it shrouds them in mystery. Hellman and long-time collaborator writer Steven Gaydos don’t really catch the noir drift, nor do they take on narrative deconstruction with the intensity of David Lynch, and their underlying thesis on the malleability of art and truth only scratches the surface of the concept.
Yet they’ve created a hybrid of their own — arthouse pulp. Audiences can either fight it, trying to make sense of the shaky plot, or flow along with the film’s languid, doomed romance accompanied by the southern poetics of singer-songwriter Tom Russell.
The opening credits list “Nowhere’s” director as Mitch Haven, a self-absorbed auteur (Tygh Runyan) taken to saying things like “I’ll always do another take for deeper truth.” When he decides to make a movie about real-life couple Velma Duran and politician Rafe Tachen, who committed fraud and perhaps faked their own deaths in their small North Carolina town, Mitch immediately rejects Scarlett Johansson and Leonardo DiCaprio because he doesn’t want name actors who will just make his movie lots of money.
Instead he chooses unknown actress Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), who resembles the real Velma and is actually involved with Tachen and Velma’s father in something that is never explained in this confusing plot. To muddy the waters further, the same person plays both Tachen and the actor Cary Stewart in Mitch’s film. As the former, he literally phones in his role most of the time from locales such as Cuba, Rome and London, which serve no purpose other than to show he’s got money to globe-trot the world.
Mitch isn’t interested in finding out what really happened to Velma and Tachen; he wants to create his cinematic version of the events, which comes as no surprise from any director. Yet even his film takes a back seat to his growing obsession with Laurel that neither his closest friends nor the film’s consultant — Waylon Payne, playing a North Carolina insurance agent on the Duran-Tachen case who pretended to be a house painter in L.A. to get close to Mitch’s project at the onset! — can talk him out of.
Runyan is a little stiff but shows he can play both earnestly affected and ironic with a straight face, and Sossamon has great presence, much more so as Laurel being her ambiguous self than as Laurel acting. Payne has the appropriate southern swagger and a provocative sparkle in his eye that serves his character well. Ever-reliable supporting actor De Young comes across as fundamentally dodgy even when saying the most innocuous lines.
“Road to Nowhere” also features one of cinema’s top plane crashes, which is beautifully shot and comes as a total surprise.