Screening Log #58: Road to Nowhere (2011)

Written by Steven Gaydos
Directed by Monte Hellman
Starring Tygh Runyan, Shannyn Sossamon, and Waylon Payne




There is a beguiling lure to the manner that any narrative medium allows one to reinterpret, or reframe, certain events. The number of films that are “based on a true story” or “true events” are innumerable and of varying quality. One great capability of all fiction is to allow the natural gaps in narrative to be filled, to render an inconsistent and complete whole instead consistent and compromised. Through this abstraction of an essentially incomplete, and entirely unavailable, narrative, fiction opens a story up for exploration and an ability to accommodate the insertion of the personal. There’s a danger inherent in this opening of narrative, however, in the inertia of the personal; a balance must be struck between fidelity to the actual narrative and the permeation of the subjective element. Monte Hellman’s first film since 1989’s video release of Silent Night Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!, Road to Nowhere, explores how this balance between story and subject plays out in film.

Mitchell Haven, Tygh Runyan, is a young film director who, with the aid of his screen-writer roommate, chooses to adapt a story from North Carolina. The story concerns an insurance scam put into play by a trio consisting of a young woman, a land developer and a police officer. After being charged for fraud, the land developer, Rafe Tachen, conspires with the young woman, Velma Duran, to fake both of their deaths with the aid of the police officer. Haven works closely with a blogger from North Carolina, Nathalie Post, Dominique Swain, who covered the story on her blog and enlists a young man who was working on his deck from the area, Bruno Brotherton, Waylon Payne, as a consultant who also happens to know Nathalie from growing up in the area. Haven begins his casting search, finding an obscure actress, Laurel Graham, Shannyn Sossamon, who has only previously appeared in one small budget horror film.

Haven flies to Rome to convince Graham to appear in his film, titled Road to Nowhere, which she agrees to despite initial reservations. The two become involved in a growing romance as the film is made, Mitchell’s infatuation with Laurel causing him to change the project to involve her more and, indeed, even how he directs scenes. This, naturally angers his writer and the other actors, most notably Cary Stewart, Cliff De Young, who has been hired to play Tachen. There is more to the story than it would at first seem, however, as characters reveal hidden motivations, connections emerge that one might not first expect, and the entire proposition of the film is complicated when Bruno begins militantly insisting that Laurel is, in fact, actually the real Velma Duran.

Haven has pitched his film to his producer as a real life inspired film noir and the film carries the film noir trope of secret identities into its own meta-cinema narrative. Road to Nowhere, in many ways, becomes a film noir/mystery about making a film noir/mystery in terms of both its content, its internal film’s content, and how both of these contents are structured. Hellman’s direction feeds into this premise. Several shots in the film show Haven’s film on a small screen before slowly zooming in until this screen fills the frame and many shots pass where it is uncertain if what the viewer is being shown is from Haven or Hellman’s Road to Nowhere. The conflation of scripted reality with actual reality results in a narrative fissure that tears through both the fictional world of Haven’s film and the actual world he inhabits.

The meta-cinematic element of the film expands beyond its structure in another, more obviously referential, manner by employing direct intertextual examples from other films. The film, at three points, shows Mitchell watching films with Laurel in his hotel room. In each instance the film that is being watched contains an explicit reference to the content of Haven’s life. The first film that the pair watch is Preston Sturgess’ The Lady Eve, particularly the final scene where the double nature of Barbara Stanwyck’s Jean is revealed to Henry Fonda’s Charles; the second film the pair are shown watching is Víctor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive, which foreshadows a drift into a fantasy world predicated on an engagement with the cinema – and is, incidentally, Hellman’s favourite Criterion Collection film; the final film holds more ominous foreshadowing, still, as the pair are interrupted by Bruno while watching Antonius Block, Max von Sydow, play chess with Bengt Ekerot’s Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. In each instance there is a resonance for the clips in how they inform Haven’s engagement with film – he calls each of the first two a “masterpiece” after it finishes – and how the viewer apprehends the action on screen.

Written by Variety executive editor Steven Gaydos, Road to Nowhere is as much concerned with the minutiae of film making as business as it is with the film as art. Haven endures an interview about his new project, goes over casting decisions, uses technical jargon with his writer and crew while the lead actor complains to an agent that his role is being diminished and inquires if there is anything he can do contractually. The film develops as a product aware of its own generation within a business world as much as an artistic one and informed as much by the bureaucracy involved in its coming to be as the “dreams” which have inspired it. Equal amounts love letter to the art and business of the cinema and warning of the dangers present in conflating narratives together, the film’s observations make up for in detail what they may lack in novelty.


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