If you've seen director Monte Hellman's Two Lane Blacktop, there's the slightest hint of what the viewer is in for with Road to Nowhere; Blacktop ends with an event that is sort of meta in its own way, calling attention to the fact that the viewer is watching a film. Of course, that film is extremely low-key and naturalistic, whereas Road to Nowhere aggressively brings the viewer into its artificiality, providing constant, dizzying reminders of several cinematic layers.
On the film's surface (probably), there is a crime involving shady land deals engineered by Rafe Taschen (Cliff De Young). His embezzlement is uncovered by a reporter named Nathalie Post (Dominique Swain), and the release of her story leads to a murder of a police officer by Taschen and Velma Duran (Shannyn Sossamon), and concludes with Taschen's apparent suicide (the money vanishes) and Velma's death. The story is then turned into a movie, to be directed by one-time maverick Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan). He refuses numerous opportunities to make a bigger, more commercial movie, passing over stars for lesser-known actors Cary Stewart (De Young) and Laurel Graham (Sossamon), the latter of whom he immediately falls in love with. Where the story goes from there is a complicated blend of truth and fiction, both of which are actually fiction, because on top of it all, the viewer is still watching Monte Hellman's Road to Nowhere rather than Mitchell Haven's.
The film centers around Sossamon's character, and writer Steven Gaydos allows the increasingly intriguing question of whether she could've somehow been involved with Velma's disappearance and the Taschen crime to linger in every scene. Hellman, meanwhile, leaves it intentionally vague whether his movie (the one the viewer is watching) is showing the making of Haven's movie, or if Haven's movie is showing a fictionalized making of Haven's movie, or if Hellman or Haven is showing us the "real" events that lead to the film being made. It's a head-spinningly ambitious construction, and these are the mysteries that make the film fascinating to watch. To that end, Sossamon really carries the picture, delivering a nuanced, three-fold performance that never gives up the game. If Laurel is truly innocent, then Sossamon's performance requires acting while acting when Haven's film is being shot, and if she's really hiding something, then there's another layer of acting underneath. Most importantly, she exudes enough charisma that Haven's infatuation with her is entirely believable, something that seems to be happening less and less in movies with central romances.
Hellman has some directorial tricks up his sleeve to help the audience keep everything straight. Whenever footage from Haven's film is being presented within the film (whether that's Hellman's or Haven's), the film opts for a distinctly cinematic, atmospheric look, with rich shdaows and dramatic close-ups. Moving out a layer, the real world looks more natural, with wider, looser framing and brighter colors. He also keeps characters he wants to distinguish between in the same costumes, almost like a comic book. On the other hand, more than a few instances of the slow-burn technique used in almost all of Two Lane Blacktop are less effective here. In that film, Hellman's long, unbroken takes often tell the viewer something about the characters, the setting, or just have enough atmosphere to keep the audience engaged. Here, there are too many long shots that feel long just for the sake of it.
After the film is over, the viewer is left to ponder, and another issue raises its head. Although it's a fascinating movie, Road to Nowhere draws attention to itself and all of its layers, to the point where it's hard to tell if the movie is actually entertaining in and of itself. The layers may be a major part of the film, but a picture like Adaptation also has characters to latch onto, characters the viewer can remain interested and invested in even when the film is juggling a mix of truth and fiction. Here, the lines are blurred to the point where it's hard to really care about Mitchell or what's happening on screen, because the film refuses to say who's actually a "real" person, or whether things are "actually" happening. Road to Nowhere is riveting, to be sure, but it's primarily interesting as a cinematic experiment. Although it's definitely worth seeing, and even has phenomenal replay value, it feels somewhat cold, lacking the satisfaction of a film that leaves the core story in control, guiding everything.
The artwork for Road to Nowhere is text-happy, taking the poster image and slathering text all over it. Text on the front, text on the back. It doesn't look too bad, but there's just so much text. No insert inside the plastic-conserving case.
The Video and Audio
Aside from black crush and some pervasive posterization right at the end of the movie, Road to Nowhere is granted a fantastic 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Fine detail is exceptional for an SD-DVD transfer, colors are vivid and bright, and I didn't see any compression artifacts during the entire show. It's really impressive for a low-budget movie, and a true testament to the power of the Canon 5D Mark II cameras Hellman used to shoot the film with (which you can also see within the film when Haven uses the same camera).
Dolby Digital 5.1 is reasonably atmospheric and does a good job handling the music, but this is a dialogue-heavy film that doesn't ask for much out of a surround sound system. I had no trouble understanding what people were saying (including the lyrics to the music), and frequently it feels like you're in the natural locations the film was shot in, but there's only so much going on for the viewer to hear. No subtitles are provided on the disc, but if your television has closed captioning, English captions are available.
There are two extra features on the disc. Behind the Scenes (15:00) looks like a standard making-of featurette, until it starts with the artillery expert explaining the local history behind the actual "road to nowhere" (a fascinating story). John Diehl tries to explain the film and can't. Dominique Swain knits. Writer Steve Gaydos talks about whether films about films are "boring." Shannyn Sossamon talks about surrending herself to the unknown. It's very good stuff, and it makes me wish the film had a commentary track or more interviews. Instead, we get an interesting but all-too-short Q&A (13:45) with Hellman and Gaydos at the Nashville Film Festival. It's okay, but as with any Q&A, it's governed by the quality of the questions asked, and a chunk of it is devoted to giving Hellman an award.
Trailers for Small Town Murder Songs and Endgame play before the menu, and on said menu, under "Other Great DVDs," you can also watch trailers for Looking For Palladin and The Sensation of Sight. Road to Nowhere's interesting original theatrical trailer is also included.
For anyone who likes Hellman's work, or film fans period, Road to Nowhere is highly recommended as a cinematic puzzle, but I can't quite say it offers enough of a compelling story or hook aside from that to be of surefire interest to anyone else. If you fall into that "anyone else" category, give it a rent if it sounds interesting.
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