Friday, November 18, 2011

Letting Creativity Flow Without Fear: Monte Hellman's "Road To Nowhere"

Shannyn Sossamon in Monte Hellman's "Road to Nowhere."

By Lars Trodson  

Here's a fantasy: Monte Hellman's latest movie, "Road To Nowhere", gets submitted to film festivals. Juries hail the new direction this audacious talent has taken. Major studios bid for its distribution. It's released nationally. The performers in "Road To Nowhere" go off to busy Oscar-nominated careers and everyone would be asking: what will Hellman do next? Best of all, the meanings and merits of "Road To Nowhere" would be debated in the newspapers and the coffeehouses around the country.

But back to the reality: We don't live in the 1970s and these aren't terribly curious cinematic times.

And so Hellman's movie, finished in 2010, has not found a mass audience. It is the latest, but no means last, effort by the justifiably revered Hellman.

With "Road To Nowhere" Hellman adds a new color to his canvas. There is no stamp of the director's earlier, earthier works (seminal westerns with Jack Nicholson in the 1960s; "Two Lane Blacktop" in 1971) and little to connect it to the paint-by-numbers product Hollywood is happily and profitably offering up these days. It is its own animal. Hellman allows his movie to continue down its tunnels of dark possibilities.

What we have in "Road To Nowhere" is dramatic sureness, glorious and unexpected performances and a witty, ingenious script. Hellman, in an interview with Roundtable Pictures, said he hoped that the audience would let go of any perceptions they may have about what a mystery should be, and simply "relax" while watching it.

He's right. Let it wash over you like a dream, or a memory, or a mist, or a legend.

Anytime an artist achieves this balance of tone, whether it's "The Godfather" or a tonal work of conceptual music like Miles Davis's "Kind Of Blue", you remember it. It sticks with you. Because "Road To Nowhere" arrives at its pitch-perfect tone so beautifully, you won't forget it. I think this is the kind of movie that should be watched in groups, and talked about later.

Hellman draws you in early. The first shot is of a DVD in its plastic case. Handwritten on the disc are the words "Road To Nowhere." This is both a poignant and questioning image. What is a movie? What is this movie?

The DVD is popped into a laptop., Ah, the old movie within a movie you'll say - but wait. Hellman's digital camera moves in slowly, slowly, and we see a young woman (Shannyn Sossamon) on a bed, and we hear someone singing Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through The Night." She starts to blow her hair with a hair dryer.

The scene lingers and clearly the audience sees what Hellman sees in Sossamon. We are captivated by her. Not so much, perhaps, by her beauty but by her mystery. The next thing we know we're in a dark tunnel - literally the end of the "road to nowhere" in North Carolina - and Sossamon, playing an actress hired to act in the movie within the movie within the movie (yes), doubles over in a Lear-like howl of pain.

And we're off an running.

This is the story of a hot-shot young director by the name of Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyon) who wants to make film about a "true" crime that happened in North Carolina. Haven is told by a studio boss that this will be his "masterpiece." But the true story has a twist: Is a real-life suspect in the crime - a woman by the name of Velma Duran (Sossamon) who disappeared - actually the actress Laurel Graham (also Sossamon) who has been picked to play the part?

Hellman and screenwriter Steve Gaydos (an editor at Variety) have a few surprises in store right away that take you deeper into the picture. There are a couple of real jolts early on. And it is here, just at the moment when you're about to lean forward and say to yourself "I need to pay attention", is the exact moment, as Hellman said, to sit back and relax.

Gaydos' script is delicate and full of real wit - a rarity these days. Having recently sat through a few movies with almost no script at all ("Paranormal Activity 2" and the execrable "The Tourist") anything even resembling a plot might have been welcome. But Gaydos' script is beautifully crafted, and it has some of the best lines in a movie heard in years.

A scene in a bar between Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne, who has the same gift of thoughtful, concenrated, honest Southern delivery as the great Holly Hunter) and Nathalie Post (Dominique Swain, exuding the right kind of toughness for the internet muckraker she plays) includes the following exchange:

Nathalie: You're an insurance investigator. 
Bruno: You make it sound like I'm some kind of cop or something. (Pause, explaining) I just kind of play around with statistics and numbers and - 
Nathalie: Facts? 
Bruno: Yes, ma'am, those, too.  

When I realized what he had actually said, I laughed out loud.

In another scene one character says to another: "Are you on Spacebook or MyFace?"  Or, after Haven deliberates over hiring such actors as Leonardo DiCaprio, he says: "I can't cast someone just because they're famous and make my movie a lot of money."  Any line that makes you think twice about what it actually is saying is unique, and this movie is full of them.

The performers are uniformly wonderful. Runyon, as the young cocky, director, exudes the right mixture of unctuousness and sincerity. Waylon Payne gives the kind of performance you rarely see any more; quiet yet forceful. It doesn't shout out at you as acting but is actually, to me, the highest examples of the craft.

The real revelation, for me, was Sossamon, who has the kind of naturalness that you associate with the very best screen actors - Audrey Hepburn and the early Jane Fonda. Her line delivery has a kind of Myrna Loy quality - and Loy had one of the most unique and honest approaches to reading a line in the history of movies.

If "Road To Nowhere" had been made by a young unknown director, critics would have hailed it as the emergence of a fresh new voice. But Hellman is 79 now, and obviously, in the nearly 50 years he has been making movies and teaching about them, he has decided to not rest easy. The result is the beautiful, haunting and ultimately moving "Road To Nowhere."