Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Hellman’s Road to Nowhere

It is a notorious crime that apparently has everything: millions of dollars missing, a crooked politician, and dodgy business in Cuba. Nevertheless, it is only the femme fatale director Mitchell Haven is interested in—or rather his leading lady. Is there even a difference between the two? Much gets blurred as the filmmaker doggedly struggles with his indie film within an indie film in Road to Nowhere (trailer here), the first film in twenty-one years from widely respected Roger Corman protégé Monte Hellman, which opens this Friday in New York.

Rather than face the music for their duplicitous dealings, Velma Duran committed suicide along with Rafe Tachen, her crooked politician lover (with the best movie name of the year so far). Or did they? The local North Carolina blogger who owned the story suspects they faked their deaths. It should be lurid grist for Haven’s film, but the self-defeatingly indie director is more interested in a character study of Duran. While he started the project with halfway commercial intentions, he has become fixated on her as an extension of Laurel Graham, the unknown actress he cast in the part.

Graham is so good as Duran, it is difficult to distinguish between the two. Indeed, she seems to have suspiciously perceptive insight into the character. The audience is led to wonder, could they be the same person? While some on the set harbor their own conspiracy theories, many more start to resent the extent to which Duran the character and Graham the co-star have hijacked the production. Yet, the nature of truth is decidedly slippery in both Haven and Hellman’s films.

While audiences should try not to get hung up on mere plot during Road, the film is not nearly the exercise in postmodern gamesmanship it appears to be. Indeed, the film’s biggest surprise is that viewers can essentially trust what they see, though it will all seem rather obscure up until Hellman’s conclusion. However, the deliberate pacing and eerily quiet atmosphere will profoundly challenge any multiplexers who happen to wander in.

Unlike Godard’s Film Socialisme, Road has a narrative essence viewers can readily grab onto. Hellman also masterfully sets the mood and scene. His use of the lush Smoky Mountain backdrop is particularly evocative of the profoundly mysterious in a Twin Peaks kind of way. Yet, this is a film with a distinctly individual feel.

Shannyn Sossamon plays a critical role maintaining Road’s mystique, suggesting a multiplicity of possible truths as Graham/Duran. She is also remarkably convincing acting like she is acting. By necessity, Tygh Runyan’s emotionally distant but highly malleable Haven is much harder to get a handle on. If anyone beyond hardcore cineastes sees Road though, it should be a breakout vehicle for Waylon Payne, who is unsettlingly good as Haven’s not as dumb as he looks local yokel advisor.

Road is a challenging film, but there is a there there. Ultimately, it all makes objective logical sense, but it is a strange (and at times slow) trip getting there. One of the most patient, cerebral thrillers to escape the festival circuit into theaters, Road is respectfully recommended for like viewers. It opens this Friday (6/10) in New York at the Village East.