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.

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