Commenting on Road To Nowhere, the first feature signed by Monte Hellman since the late Eighties, God help us, at a remove of many months from its North American unveiling, makes one feel like the singleton who shows up at the door well after the party’s over; its provincial box office tale has been told, the commentariat has had its say, and spotty distribution has made holding out hope to see it on anything bigger than an LCD a delusion. But why should this film be different from his others? Someone stumbling across The Shooting or Ride In The Whirlwind on a snowy VHF channel in 1966 and wondering at their severity and unsentimentality would have to wait five long years until Jack Nicholson was a star before seeing them on a big screen; Two-Lane Blacktop was dropped like a hot rock because of Lew Wasserman’s fury at its thorny lack of modishness; Cockfighter and China 9 Liberty 37 were one week theatrical wonders, surviving as Z Channel and nascent-HBO high points, then entombed for years on cassettes passed from adherent to new convert. And so it is with Road To Nowhere. One waits for it to show up in a theatre for more than a minute, months slip by, the give-in to DVD happens, and as one sees its opening gambit unfold – a woman and man sitting in a small room, the man slipping a DVD into a laptop, the camera slowly, exquisitely, approaching the small screen, the song coming from the laptop’s speaker delicately boosted in the mix at just the right moment – one is not only aware that the transformation from film to inner film is beautiful (though it surely is) but also that one is (to summon Robert Warshow) a man or woman watching a DVD in a small room due to a farrago of financial and aesthetic conditions. Such has been the directorial life of Monte Hellman; such has been the lot of his admirers.
There are, though, worse ways in which to encounter this particular picture. Road To Nowhere is a noir and a metafiction, a movie about a director (Tygh Runyan) showing us a movie he has made about a “true” crime in which ill-gained money leads to the apparent death of two conspirators. He refuses all entreaties to cast a bankable star, fixating instead on an actress of limited experience whose look and bearing haunts him. (He first sees her on his laptop, lovely and contained. As it turns out, both the character and the woman who plays her, Shannyn Sossamon, are quite resistant to being hemmed in thus.) He flies to Italy to convince her to act in his film. She insists she is not an actress but in truth she is a terrific one; she is one of the thieves whom the story is about and is, having successfully staged her death, now flush and peripatetic, on the run under an assumed name. The production commences, as does a love affair. A cast and crew are assembled, including a blogger who made her name reporting on the aftermath of the crime and an insurance investigator who insinuates his way into the production. Things go straight to hell, and it’s a slow burn. The director strays from the plan, shifting the focus of the film to the actress, his key muse and object of desire, bewildering the writer and the lead actor in the process. He becomes distracted and jealous when she is out of his sight and his grip on the professional and personal loosens. The blogger and insurance investigator believe they have caught the actress out and scheme to expose her and blow the lid off the whole show, which they do, with tragic consequences.
So then, a noir, and a classic noir scenario: criminals and liars and crazy lovers weave and twist and torture and toss themselves and everyone nearby straight into the shitter. Is it an in insult to Steven Gaydos, the writer of the screenplay, to say that even after three viewings the particulars of the plot hardly matter at all? I don’t think so. The story is supple and allows for tributaries of character and motivation. It has real depth of field. But just as one might imagine a different production of the same material, like one might conjure, say, a California Split directed by Spielberg instead of Altman (as was originally planned), one must finally contend with what happened, this particular take on the blueprint, this product of a specific directorial metabolism, and be glad of it. A genre scenario and its enactors have been distilled, purified, reduced to an essence – Hellmanized. One can quite literally disregard the workings of plot and luxuriate in the characters’ situation – which is to say, plight. To call them types, or archetypes, is imprecise. Hellman’s people are slaves to impulse, scurriers, obsessives determined to order a world in which order is, finally, an illusion, a fantasy that kills. They end up in trapped in box canyons, automobiles, prisons actual and metaphorical. The beauty of Hellman, his great aesthetic achievement, is his determined refusal to allow excess inflection in staging and performance, a stance which, while distanced, is not Olympian or scabrous or cruel. Though Road To Nowhere is characteristic of noir in its ultimate bleakness, it’s notable for its lack of mechanistics; its people might be, like all of us, screwed in the end, and no less so in the beginning and the middle, but Hellman’s appraisal, unsparing as it may be, is not accusing or superior, and does not lack for compassion. And though we may love certain films that are sleek, pacey and portentous doom machines, it is a pleasure to see a noir that probes, but does not arbitrarily punish – a noir that breathes.
Road To Nowhere’s flow, or rather, flows, are fascinating. Though Hellman’s main concern is the gaze, the fixation on image collection and the ultimate cost of that pursuit, he does not smack you over the head with the notion – he is patient and bides his time getting to his fatal upshot. The languorous setup gives way to a barrage of short scenes of the film (also called Road To Nowhere) being written, cast, and eventually going into production. They end abruptly, capped with volleys of Gaydos’s mordant showbiz koans. (The tetchy awkwardness and increasing marginalization of the inner film’s screenwriter, played by Rob Kolar, is especially comic; at the end of a greenlight meeting our director shakes on the deal, saying “All we can do now is fuck it up,” and Kolar too-quickly adds a wobbly, “And we will!” He, of course, delivers the line offscreen.) The movie bursts and retreats, and does not make it easy to get your bearings. There is no valet, no Sir Basil Exposition to orient you to the shifts in narrative tense. As Runyan says at one point, “If it all made sense I wouldn’t be interested.” It is as it ever was with a Hellman film; either you hang with it or you don’t. The structure is not a nihilistic game of 52 Pick-up, though; Hellman isn’t playing games at all, not even in a self-reflexive movie-movie, a genre in which it is easy to get cutesy with the illusion-reality thing. Directly put: though this discreet, non-pushy craftsman is not above taking you by the short hairs with a painterly frame, an unexpected sound cue, or even a plane crash, he absolutely will not lead you around by them.
About that movie-ness. Unfair as it may be to say about a film so packed with unique visual and incidental density and in-the-moment vitality, I’m not sure that it’s possible to grapple with Road To Nowhere properly without a feel for Hellman’s history and the elements of that history which he shares with other filmmakers. As the vice tightens on his Director (who also has the initials M.H., just as the Writer’s initials are S.G. ) and his authority to order his set and life is undone by lover’s jealousy, the mistrust of his crew, and the killing cabal of the Blogger and Insurance Man, one hears echoes of late Sam Peckinpah fantasias like the Hellman-edited Killer Elite, with the attempts of its wicked Company to kill off its crippled but unyielding operative serving as metaphor for The Suits carving piece after piece off of Bleeding Sam, and The Osterman Weekend, with which Road shares some funhouse aspect and sense of the camera as a weapon which will eventually turn on its operator. (It does not share, however, those films’ self-aggrandizement and coked-out paranoia; Hellman is too sensible both in art and life and has had to fight enough dragons in his day that there’s no need to flat-out hallucinate any more of them. Talk about metabolism.)
I’m also reminded of something said by Dennis Hopper many years ago at a screening of The Last Movie, a film whose financial and artistic profligacy was, as it happened, a spike in the heart of any prospect that Two-Lane Blacktop would find support from their common banker, Universal Pictures. His introduction dealt primarily with the movie`s notoriety (the great disaster of its birth, to allude to the sonnet by Santayana that is read aloud in Road To Nowhere) but the last question asked of him was, “Whats the film about?” His sad reply before the lights dimmed was, “Young people’s dreams.” After all the knowing asides, the feints, the modesties, the matter-of-fact presentation of an antagonist as working for a firm called Universal Benefit Systems (it’s not a stretch to note that no system has ever worked to Monte Hellman’s benefit, especially the Universal Studio System), Road To Nowhere’s crux is, simply, a man, a woman, and the price of dreams. Though most of its cast is young, this film is recognizably the product of people with some mileage on them, who have known death and disappointment, have weathered the slow creep of time and have learned the limits of ambition. The Director tells the Actress that a filmmaker never wants to admit how much time he spends obsessing over other people’s dreams, and in Hellman’s final gut punch of an image the Director is consigned to a hell of his own making, doomed to live with a simulacrum of lost love, a dream frozen in digital aspic. It is a parting shot equal to the famed ending of Two-Lane Blacktop and a similar purgatorial vision, but there is no distancing to it. It is the purest of emotional leaps. “Devastating” may be a word debased by overuse, but none other will do, and I have no hesitation in doubling down with another. If the word “masterpiece” is to have any useful definition, that is, a singular expression of the technical and thematic concerns of one who has proven mastery in his field, then, yes, Road To Nowhere is certainly one of those.
There is art and there is philosophy, but in the end there is life as it is lived day to day. Monte Hellman, it seems, has tried to make the best of his particular human plight. When he has been unable to direct he’s worked as an editor. He has pulled saves on troubled productions and he has taught young people. (How lucky is the student who gets to learn the grammar of cinema from such an exacting yet unfussy artist?) He has worked as a reliable pro by vocation and as one of our great filmmakers by avocation, when allowed. He has gotten on with it. I indulged recently in a bit of a wallow about damaged reputations, lost people, lost films. Hellman is tougher – no wallow for him, no aspic. He has made a movie and it is a great one. And one must also make special mention of this film’s cast, crew, producers, scrappers and hustlers all, working for a dollar and a dime, if that. At the end of a path strewn with decades of intrigues, lies, disappointment and sheer horseshit, their efforts have gifted us with a lovely rare bird, a Resplendent Quetzal of a picture that is to be all the more treasured for its fragility – another Monte Hellman Picture.