Steve Gates: You’re in way to deep on this one, man.
Mitchell Haven: In my dreams, maybe.
In Road to Nowhere (based on a script from Steven Gaydos), Monte Hellman weaves together three separate storylines including the making of a film, the film that is being made, and the mystery on which the movie that is being made is based. The intercutting of the of stories sets up a chiasmatic exchange of influence between the work and the work-within-the-work in a way that does not so much as break the fourth wall, like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also with Shannyn Sossamon), but rather questions whether or not there ever was a wall there to begin with. Road to Nowhere is a master class in film theory that covers both how films are made and how they are consumed.
A double suicide in Bryson County, North Carolina involving a local politician and a Cuban refugee ends up costing the state $100 million. Shortly thereafter director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) is making a film based on the event as reported on Natalie Post’s (Dominique Swain) blog. The film production begins to unravel when the director becomes involved with the unknown actress, Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), stirring up jealousy and in-fighting among the cast and crew. Matters are not helped when the film’s regional consultant, and former insurance investigator, Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne), begins to suspect the actress Laurel Graham of being involved in the actual scandal.
Those familiar with the oeuvre of Monte Hellman will quickly recognize themes of artifice versus reality, fact versus fiction. Most famously, Two-Lane Blacktop ends with a dissolve that simulates nitrate burning up in the projector—a jarring “kick” (to borrow from the language of Inception) out of the movie. In the same film, Warren Oates’ character rehearses his fictions as if facts can be changed as easily as a sweater. In China 9, Liberty 37, the pulp novelist played by Sam Peckinpah refers to his books as, “The lies they [i.e., “the people back east”] need…we all need.” Or, consider Oberlus, in Iguana, concerned with how his legacy is being recorded by the diarist. Twenty-one years later, Monte Hellman continues to show an interest in the same themes, albeit now in the digital age of DSLR HD cameras, laptop computer displays replacing film running through a projector, and internet bloggers succeeding dime novelists as purveyors of information with a “fuck the facts” ethos.
Road to Nowhere bears some resemblance to Kiarostami’s recent masterpiece Certified Copy, which mounts an apologetics of the copy in the original–copy dualism when William Shimmell’s character argues, “[T]he copy itself has worth, in that it leads us to the original.” By using art and life as stand-ins in the same dualism, the legitimacy of the very dualism itself comes into question. Hellman’s film shows how select originary facts lead to the making of film that in turn leads back to perhaps a clearer understanding of the facts, which are now mediated by the filmic copy. These three narrative topoi are often made indistinguishable from one another. For example, little noticeable effort is made to distinguish between scenes from the film-within-the-film and the scenes on which the film-within-the-film is based. Occasionally the film transitions from one narrative to the other in a single take as in the seventh shot in the opening scene that slowly zooms in on a computer screen playing a movie also titled Road to Nowhere showing a woman sitting on a bed drying her recently polished toe nails. Eventually the zoom fills our screen with the screen within making us complicit with the characters watching the film-within-the-film (this technique was previously used by Hellman in his 2006 short “Stanley’s Girlfriend”).
From this point on the film becomes a matrix a self-reference. The opening credits let us know that we are about to watch a film called Road to Nowhere directed by Mitchell Haven and written by Steve Gates; the initials of the characters and the title of their movie suggests a film à clef. Indeed the fictional director’s involvement with the unknown actress Laurel Graham who plays a character who maybe commits suicide has loose real-life correlative in Hellman’s amorous involvement with Laurie Bird (Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter), to whom the film is dedicated, who ended her own life in 1979. Although other attributes in Laurel Graham’s backstory, like when she explains, “They saw me in some stupid horror movie that I did that I never thought would get seen anywhere,” suggest the actress Laura Harring (Mulholland Dr.), who was a lead in Hellman’s last directorial feature, Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (also written by Steven Gaydos).
In spite of the extratextual similarities, Road to Nowhere remains a film à clef without a key locked inside an elliptical labyrinth of self-reference. To wax Derridean, there is no outside-film and there is no outside of the film, just a road that magnificently leads…well, you know.
One review that had particular influence on me that I cite here in case traces crept in is:
Quintín, “Currency | Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman, US),” Cinema-Scope 46 (2011): 72–73.