Monte Hellman’s first feature film in 21 years is one of his finest and deepest, a twin peak to his 1971 masterpiece, “Two Lane Blacktop.” “Road to Nowhere” displays this director’s trademark virtues — an elegant compositional eye, tough-minded thematic sense and sharp sensitivity to what goes unspoken between people, especially in moments of deepest feeling — with such energy that movie lovers and critics should embrace it on the festival circuit. Given that it spins an emotionally anchored but multilayered brain-teaser, shrewd marketing could feasibly yield some crossover biz, especially with college-age viewers, in niche play.
Possessed of the same qualities that have given long life to such Hellman films as “The Shooting” (1966), “Ride the Whirlwind” (1966), “Cockfighter” (1974) and “Iguana” (1988), the film toys right away with expectations: An opening credit reads “Directed by Mitchell Haven.” One might wonder fleetingly, “Is Hellman directing this under a pseudonym?” Instead, we are meeting protagonist Haven (Tygh Runyan), a young filmmaker coping with a maze of catastrophic events that plague a small pic he is directing in North Carolina.
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Such film-within-a-film tropes are never overdone; Hellman teases with skill. We’re seduced into watching Haven’s crime picture inspired by a so-called “true story” about a murder-disappearance involving a wealthy couple and a subsequent intrigue over some missing cash. That plot keeps auds hooked, but a more compelling line of tension emerges in the foreground, as the young director falls prey to a passionate fascination with his leading lady (Shannyn Sossamon), an unknown who is fond of declaring “I’m not an actress.” Yet her performance in Haven’s film is so vivid that certain onlookers wonder whether she is the actual femme fatale from the original crime who’s still missing, and whether she is cleverly hiding centerstage, so to speak, under this ultimate false identity.
“You’re not interested in the truth,” shouts the angry insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) hired as a consultant to the production. His expertise regarding the original crime has uniquely attuned him to the possibility that he and everybody else are being played for fools by this enigmatic woman. His cry from the heart about “truth” has a double kick: It’s the primal scream of anybody who has ever felt themselves suffering at the mercy of movies, particularly their power to persuade us of things we know better than to trust.
This is Hellman’s true subject in “Road to Nowhere.” Intellectually, he is ruminating playfully on the nature of this medium. Emotionally, viscerally, he is not dealing with “movies” at all, but with the heartfelt illusions we consent to, often on the grandest scales, when we are either in love or at war with the human beings in front of us. The investigator’s smoldering outrage may be honestly fact-based or delusional, but in either case, his impulses grow more violent, to the point of life-threatening, the more he feels obliged to act upon his hunches. All this causes the story’s several layers to collapse with thrilling clarity onto one plane of suspense at the climax.
The screenplay is by Steven Gaydos, who has been a steady collaborator of Hellman’s since the mid-1970s. The story he devises could well have been strong noirish stuff in other hands, but feels tailored with a knowing and loving eye toward the quiet, headstrong antagonists who populate Hellman’s best work. The story abounds in film-savvy references, such as a line clipped from “The Lady Eve”: “I coulda sworn they was the same dame!”
Shot digitally by cinematographer Josep M. Civit on the Canon 5D Mark 2, using traditional still-photo lenses, the picture’s imagery is rich, combining micro-sharp definition of people and objects with a cinematic, watercolor-like softness in the lighting. Music is used sparingly. Hellman, who normally cuts his own pictures (having begun his career as an assistant editor on the Columbia lot), enlisted editor Celine Ameslon to help discover the story’s final structure.
What keeps “Road to Nowhere” rooted in feeling as opposed to intellect are an outstanding ensemble of players, with particular attention owed to the trio at its heart. Payne renders his character’s disintegrating sanity with a well-observed sense of understatement — rational-seeming, but too blindly insistent that he’s in the right. Sossamon, by contrast, gives us a woman so comfortably in command of herself, exuding a calm self-knowledge while revealing precious little of her inner life, that one readily comprehends why a madman would wish her destruction while a lover would wish her immortality (and his own) in a work of art.
Runyan, as the dreamer beholding her, projects a winning cool for the film’s first two-thirds that almost — almost — conceals how profoundly he is mesmerized by this woman and the wealth of mysteries she embodies. Even more movingly, he is able to be stoic, even poker-faced as the demons afflicting his adversaries threaten to topple him. With his air of intellect and his easy, romantic-tough-guy vibe, Runyan brings to mind the virtues of the late Warren Oates, who did his best work with Hellman, beautifully reinforcing the sense that “Road to Nowhere” is but the latest in a still-growing, fully alive body of work.
This review was assigned to an impartial non-staffer since Variety executive editor Steven Gaydos was writer and a producer of “Road to Nowhere.” Feeney in the past has written reviews of two other films from Variety staffers.