Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

20 November 2011

Hitching a Ride with Monte Hellman

Warning: Spoiler alert.

Since i first saw it at the Gene Siskel Film Center last August, i've wanted to write about Road to Nowhere, directed by the legendary Monte Hellman, but it's one of those movies that i needed to spend more time with before i could figure out what to say about it. I got a copy from Netflix and watched it again last night, and am now convinced that this is a movie i need to own. I was blown away by it the first time i saw it, but even more so the second time. I should confess that the DVD had been sitting here for a while, because i was a little nervous about undoing that great first impression. I rarely like watching movies at home as much as i do in the theater. The viewing conditions at Casa de Demeanor are less than ideal: Admittedly, the 21" computer screen is a big improvement on the 13" TV, but i still live next to a very loud and active elevated train route (think Blues Brothers), and am easily distracted by a sink full of dirty dishes or a ringing telephone. In spite of all that, Road to Nowhere drew me back into its tangled world of stories within stories and proved to be an even more satisfying film the second time around. I feel like i've just scratched the surface of this dense and delicious composition and look forward to watching it many more times.

Road to Nowhere is a very welcome addition to the genre of movies about making movies. I'm a sucker for this genre: whether it's Singin' in the Rain, Day for NightBarton Fink, or The Player, i love watching movies that pull back the curtain and show some of what goes on behind the scenes as a movie is being coaxed, cajoled, pushed, and prodded into existence. In this case, the movie is not a big, glitzy Hollywood production, but a low-budget picture, being filmed in the mountains of North Carolina. Just as an aside, I have to say that i'm kind of obsessed with film locations and loved this one. I had to carefully scan the end credits to get the name of the Balsam Mountain Inn where much of it was filmed. It is so beautifully rustic, with its horizontal wood paneling, the perfectly cozy setting for all the creepiness and duplicity that surrounds the making of the movie within a movie. 

The plot of the film within a film--also entitled Road to Nowhere--revolves around the double-suicide of Rafe Tachen, a powerful, middle-aged, American politician, and Velma Duran, a beautiful and mysterious young woman. So far this sounds like it could be the usual Hollywood fodder, slightly elevated by the fact that it's "based on a true story." The film apparently has a compelling screenplay, as evidenced by the fact that Scarlett Johansson is willing to play Velma for scale. But Scarlett never has a chance because the director (Tygh Runyan) finds himself increasingly captivated by Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), an unknown young actress who bears a striking resemblance to the "real" Velma (for good reason, as we learn). He offers her the role, despite her insistence that she is not experienced enough for it, and gradually he falls more deeply and obsessively in love with her. The rest of the cast and crew become progressively more disgruntled: the lead actor (Cliff de Young) unhappily watches the narrative shift away from his supposedly central character and increasingly focus on the leading lady; the screenwriter sees his script get butchered to the point that he questions whether a single line of his dialogue will survive; critical scenes are only afforded one take, while Laurel is indulged with multiple takes whenever she is not entirely happy with her performance. Meanwhile, the action cuts back and forth between the making of the film (with its assumptions about the unhappy fate of its two main characters) and another plotline in which we learn that the suicides never happened, that the crooked politician (also played by de Young) is alive and well and had earlier hired Laurel to impersonate Velma as part of a scheme to get away with a fortune. 

The twists and turns of plots and plots-within-plots are enough to keep the viewer guessing. The dual roles played by de Young and Sossamon can leave the viewer scrambling to keep track of which plot they are watching from one moment to the next. Even the opening credit sequence turns out to be the credits for the film-within-a-film. All of this makes for a very unsettling yet ultimately pleasurable experience: this is the kind of movie you can spend hours afterwards discussing and debating. But beyond that, Road to Nowhere is a movie that expresses a deep love for its medium. Mitchell Haven, the character/director, who not coincidentally shares the same initials as director Monte Hellman, is frequently shown watching other movies on television: The Lady Eve, The Spirit of the Beehive, The Seventh Seal. During the scene in which Haven explains his decision to cast the unknown Laurel Graham in spite of Scarlett Johansson's interest in playing the role, the characters of the screenwriter and an insurance investigator who has hired on as a consultant play a game of chess. It seems at the time like a simple bit of business to add texture to the scene, but when Haven is later seen watching the iconic scene in The Seventh Seal where Max von Sydow's character plays chess with Death in an attempt to save his own life, that earlier scene takes on a more ominous tone. 

In an early scene in which Haven and his screenwriter meet with a studio executive, they describe the script as "the film noir of our dreams." "Don't ever use that word again," the executive only half-jokingly replies. But there are traces of noir everywhere and on both levels of the narrative: from the femme fatale and the morally ambiguous insurance investigator (Hello, Double Indemnity!), to the almost overwhelming use of shadow to obscure the action and keep the audience literally and figuratively in the dark. A few minutes into the film, there is a long take of a cottage in the woods. It looks homey, like something in a fairytale. Then a gun goes off. The first time i watched the movie, i found myself wondering what had happened, who had been shot. The second time, i thought of the very similar moment in that great noir classic, The Big Sleep.  

The restlessness in the opening shots of Velma/Laurel in her bedroom, painting her fingernails, blowing a hair dryer first on her nails and then in her face, reminded me of Faye Dunaway's petulant opening scene in  Bonnie and Clyde, another bored and restless girl about to embark on a dangerous road; the final shot of the film, in which the camera approaches a photograph of Laurel with infinitesimal slowness until it ends with an extreme closeup of her mouth, reminded me again of the opening of Bonnie & Clyde but with the eroticism of the shot of Faye Dunaway's red lips in the earlier film now transformed into something darker, almost vampire-like. I have no idea if this is an intended homage or not, but this is a film that invites the viewer to share in its love of the movies and to make these kinds of connections. Road to Nowhere is a movie lover's movie, through and through, and a thoroughly satisfying ride down a road filled with hairpin turns. 

Watch the trailer for Road to Nowhere here.  
Road to Nowhere is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon.com (at a very good price at the time of this writing). Pay no attention to the negative reviews; they were written by people you probably wouldn't want to watch a movie with.

12 November 2011

Keeping Them Down on the Farm

As you have probably noticed if you've been reading this blog regularly, i don't usually write about new movies. Up until now, the only exception to that rule has been The Tree of Life, but even there, i waited until i'd seen it three times before i felt confident enough to write about it. But tonight, i'm going to make an exception and maybe mark this as the beginning of a shift in my modus operandi

John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, Louisa Krause, Christopher Abbott in Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene begins in what first appears to be an idyllic setting, a communal farm somewhere in the Catskills. The steady rhythm of a hammer, the chirping of crickets, the soft voices of people working together, all blend together to lull the viewer into imagining--however briefly--how peaceful it would be to live this way, far removed from sirens and cell phones, and all the other endless assaults on the eardrums and the soul that are part of most of our daily lives. It doesn't take long, though, for a slow sense of uneasiness to creep into this bucolic scene. A pleasant-enough shot of the men in the communal family, gathered around the table sharing a meal, cuts to a strange image of the women waiting languidly outside the room, one of them half-heartedly toying with a strand of another's hair. It is only after we see them outside that we realize the strangeness of their absence from that earlier image of the family dinner. The women in this family do not eat until the men have finished. The oddness of this realization begins to compound itself until it quickly becomes apparent that this group is more cult than family, dominated by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes). 

Martha Marcy May Marlene is the story of a troubled young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who leaves the cult but cannot leave it behind. At various points, she goes by each of the names in the title of the film: Martha was her name before she found her way to the farm and the name she reclaims when she leaves; Marcy May is the new name she is given by Patrick, part of the process of stripping away her identity as a person with a life beyond this new family; Marlene is the generic name assumed by all the women in the group when they answer telephone calls from people in the outside world. We never learn how Martha originally found her way to the farm, but it isn't all that hard to imagine how this lonely and vulnerable young woman would have been an easy target for the promise of a peaceful, embracing family. Eventually, she runs away but why she does so becomes clear only gradually. Her story emerges in a series of flashbacks that flow so imperceptibly through the narrative that at first it takes a conscious effort on the viewer's part to separate the two timeframes of her story. Martha is taken in by her recently-married older sister Lucy and her husband. Old strains in the relationship between the two sisters quickly re-emerge and are compounded by Lucy's (Sarah Paulson) guilt over not having been better equipped to care for Martha when their parents died, a guilt that Martha constantly and manipulatively reignites. But caring for Martha remains no easy task, despite Lucy's efforts. Martha cannot instantly be restored to normalcy simply by leaving the farm: the emotional problems that brought her into the cult do not magically disappear when she leaves it, but are instead compounded by what she experienced there. 

Powerful performances by Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes help to make this such an unsettlingly good film. Olsen, the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, gives a nuanced performance as Martha, ranging from strong-willed to submissive, from manipulative to nearly catatonic. Originally seduced and enthralled by Patrick, she eventually must confront the reality of the evil in which she has become enmeshed and manages to make her escape; but once she has found her way to the bourgeois safety of her sister's home she shifts between extremes of behavior: at one minute leaping into a lake naked in front of her stunned sister and brother-in-law, at another curled in bed in a fetal position.  Without ever providing many details of her backstory, Olsen's performance manages to satisfy the viewer's curiosity about what kind of girl could end up in a situation like this one. 

John Hawkes is a smoldering presence on the screen: alternately gentle and brutal, but always exerting complete control over the members of his constructed family. He is not a man to be crossed, and although his first tactic is always a soft and reasonable tone, when that doesn't work he is capable of terrible cruelty. He is a skinny but sinewy figure, all ropy arms and piercing eyes; the other men in the group are bigger, burlier, and younger than he, but it seems inconceivable that any of them would go against him and win. Everything about him is deliberate and designed to reenforce his dominance over the others. There are echoes here of Teardrop, the character he played in Winter's Bone; but watching him in this role, i could hardly believe that this was the same actor who played the sweet but woefully inept shoe salesman in Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know. In that film, he plays a distraught father trying desperately to come to terms with his divorce and to win over the love and admiration of his children. His most defining moment comes at the beginning of the film when he decides to impress his sons with a magic trick, setting his hand on fire. Unfortunately he forgets the most important part of the trick, and uses lighter fluid instead of alcohol; consequently, his spectacular trick ends with a badly burned hand. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, his character controls his family through the sheer force of personality: he burns, but with a very different fire, one capable of incinerating anyone who dares to cross him. 

Martha Marcy May Marlene trailer.