It’s difficult to know where reality ends and fiction begins in Monte Hellman’s most recent movie, Road to Nowhere(2010). And even when we’re informed that what we’ve just seen is true, we feel less at ease then ever – and wonder what games Hellman, and scriptwriter Steven Gaydos, may be playing, and why.
Road to Nowhere is a film-within-a-film that concerns a young Hollywood director (played by Tygh Runyan), his cast and crew. Their movie is about a mysterious character named Velma Duran (Shannyn Sossamon), her much older lover, slimy politico Rafe Taschen (Cliff De Young), and the path of destruction that seems to follow them wherever they go.
When the director casts an unknown actress named Laurel Graham to play the role of Velma, he very quickly loses his heart and his movie to forces beyond his control.
Hellman’s plot is not by any means new. David Lynch did much the same thing in Mulholland Drive and, indeed, Hellman’s scene in which Velma drives alone along a wooded road at night, is not only reminiscent of Mulholland, but Sossamon herself could be a clone for Lynch’s principal actress, Laura Harring.
Hellman’s not shy about paying homage to other directors, or their films, as in the closing scene where he slowly and hypnotically zooms in upon an image of a sleeping or dead Velma/Laurel. This scene so closely resembles an image of the character Anna Barton in Louis Malle’s film Damage that it is difficult to discriminate between the two. In fact, the only differences between the scenes are the physical states of the characters (Velma being passive and Anna clearly, vibrant), and the focus of the camera’s zoom (Velma’s lips vs. Anna’s eyes). Needless to say, the affect is both haunting and disturbing in both films.
Hellman’s tale about an obsessed filmmaker who falls in love with his leading lady, the cryptic character she portrays, and the cinematic story, is both shocking and addictive. It also poses a very serious question. Specifically: Which is more hazardous: love, murder, or succumbing to one’s dreams?
Hellman also exposes a critical issue confronting all filmmakers, namely: When does the camera stop being a tool of art, and become a weapon of destruction? An example of this occurs in one of the final scenes of the film where a police officer calls out to the director, standing at the window filming him, asking him to put down his weapon. Interestingly, the weapon the director carries at that moment is, of course, his camera.
Masterfully, Hellman explores the most ordinary aspects of human frailty and emotion, as he veers into the murky waters of the philosophical-unknown. Here, characters, those who portray them, time and dimension, precariously merge and endure on that endless road to nowhere, called life.
Road to Nowhere is a monumental life-changer with a very clear, black box warning. See it only if you’re a seasoned cineaste – and well prepared for the wildest dream of your life.
Amy R. Handler is a Boston-based film-maker, film scholar, writer and critic.