“Velma was always my window into the story” is the melancholic declaration that kicks off Road to Nowhere, Monte Hellman’s first feature since 1989’s toxic Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out. In the film, real-life actress Shannyn Sossamon is Velma Durande, who is also fictitious actress Laurel Graham. There’s no separating the three personalities because fiction in Road to Nowhere is a very tempting and tortuous state of mind. We’re introduced to Velma/Laurel with a slow zoom on a laptop screen showing footage of Laurel performing in a film being made within Hellman’s film. That slow zoom deliberately mirrors the slow zoom in on a photo of Laurel at the end of the film, creating bookend images of people gazing wonderingly at the bewitching Velma.
For Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan), a young director who exhibits Hellman’s methods as a filmmaker, if not his overall personality, Velma/Laurel personifies the bewitching qualities of cinema. She’s beautiful but bored and inhabits every frame she’s in without necessarily doing anything. There’s no real reason for Laurel to have been cast in Mitchell’s new movie, as is shown when Mitchell explains why he cast Laurel with a quote from Casablanca. “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into mine,” Mitchell mouths wearily. The line would be more convincing if Runyan were a better actor, but then again, Sossamon’s amateurishness as Laurel is the crux of Road to Nowhere. Sossamon’s unvarnished performance is what makes her fascinating and so cinematic to Hellman. It’s why Mitchell tells Laurel the anecdote about Samuel Fuller’s stoic reply of “don’t” to Robert Stack upon being asked how Stack should act.
Laurel, the actress who embodies Velma throughout the movie, is the lightning rod for Road to Nowhere‘s layered narrative. She’s just as much Mitchell’s obsession as the original Velma was for Rafe Tachen (Cliff De Young), a greedy industrialist who everybody thinks died under mysterious circumstances. So when it comes to filming Velma and Rafe’s story, it stands to reason that Mitchell is only initially in control of his production. Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne), a manic insurance investigator, is quietly snooping around the set for information on the real Tachen, while Nathalie Post (Dominique Swain), a blogger who reported extensively on Tachen’s activities, is pursuing her own agenda. All of these cooks in Mitchell’s kitchen threaten to destroy his project and eventually his sanity.
Movies matter in Road to Nowhere, a self-serious sentiment that Hellman understands warrants some light sardonic humor, as when Mitchell’s screenwriter pouts, “Do you think Altman ever treated his screenwriters like this?!” Images of characters in motion are accordingly more important than any dialogue could be. Body language is key, whether it’s a shot of a reflexive jerk of a character’s knee or the way they try to stand stock-still when every part of them wants to move. The uncannily still but vibrant pace of Hellman’s film seems to have been reached based on how Hellman wanted various takes of his actors playing actors playing actors to reflect the subtle iterations of their restless energy.
Take the sublime little Altmanesque scene within a scene of Laurel, as Velma, handing a plate of sandwiches to Cary Stewart (also De Young), the actor playing Tachen, too soon. Cary motions for a sandwich after she pulls the tray away and Laurel’s unable to take him or the scene that they’re shooting seriously afterward. First she lets out a haughty, stagey laugh then he responds in kind. Then they laugh together in unison. This scene—like the one where Cary rehearses a monologue three times in a row before pouting, “Who wrote this shit?”—shows so much without overtly saying anything. Hellman’s keen eye for seemingly incidental details is incisive that it makes his habit of destroying writer-producer Steven Gaydos’s narrative’s most artificial elements that much more rewarding.
Thankfully, Hellman only wants to deconstruct his film so much. This is why the actor who plays Cary also plays Rafe and why the actress playing Laurel also plays Velma: There’s not supposed to be a difference between the two personalities. Within the context of the production of Mitchell’s film, the meta-reflexive filmic image has to maintain the illusion of its own seamlessness to some extent, as in the scene where Laurel and Mitchell are watching Spirit of the Beehive together in Mitchell’s room. The version they’re watching noticeably doesn’t have English subtitles scrolling along the bottom of the screen. That would mar the image too much and threaten to break the connection between the television showing the film and Mitchell and Laurel. It’s a personal relationship between viewer and film just as much as it is between creator and creation, which is why Mitchell impotently corrects Bruno when he accuses Mitchell of making “just another Hollywood piece of shit movie.” “It’s my Hollywood piece of shit movie,” Mitchell barks back.
But then again, the characters need subtitles after a point, like in the later scene where Mitchell and Laurel are watching The Seventh Seal with white English subtitles. This is meant to be looked at as an image within an image, as you can tell from the vertical letterbox frame of the film. The integrity of Hellman’s images within images is breaking down by this point just as much as the camaraderie between Mitchell’s cast and crew is visibly dissipating. An even more overtly unsettling reflection of this all-consuming emotional breakdown within Hellman’s film comes during a crucial scene where Mitchell is looking at an empty room through a handheld digital camera and sees his crew staring back at him. They’re filming him filming them, an endlessly looping mirror image that doesn’t hold up after the sounds of sirens intrudes on Mitchell’s deranged reverie. Movies are potentially dangerous and the camera is a weapon of disillusionment so Hellman makes a point of reminding us that we’re watching the making of a movie within a movie by transitioning from one scene with a blinding fade to white transition. It’s a fantastic precursor to Road to Nowhere‘s tantalizing final shot of Mitchell staring longingly at a photo of Laurel, like a moth staring at a blinding flame.
The video is so sharp that you can count the goosebumps on actress Dominique Swain's ass in one scene. The soundtrack is equally impressive, nicely preserving the film's various sound effects with its score and dialogue as successfully as Monte Hellman and screenwriter Steven Gaydos preserve their narrative's nuances.
A behind-the-scenes featurette is surprisingly clever, warm, and funny, dutifully reflecting the concerns of Hellman's film, as in the many sequences of the cast and crew simply interacting with each other without additional fanfare or explanation. Fans of the film will want to watch this 15-minute bonus feature if only to hear actor John Diel struggle to explain what the film is about. He concludes sullenly, "You know what? I don't know what the fuck the movie was about. But it was fun." But the Q&A with Hellman and Gaydos is pretty inessential, seemingly filmed on the fly at the Nashville International Film Festival last year just before Hellman was given a lifetime-achievement award. The interview itself is brief and unenlightening, but viewers might find it worth watching if only just to observe Hellman's body language. He fidgets a lot throughout the Q&A. It's a very cinematic sight to see.
Road to Nowhere is a tribute to the artifice and the rawness of cinema and a fitting testament to director Monte Hellman's powers of cinematic sleight of hand.