When a great director’s first feature in 21 years involves a movie-within-a-movie conceit, it’s enough to give you pause and dread a noodling, therapeutic endeavor. In the new Monte Hellman picture, a dreamy-gazed filmmaker is shooting a film—called Road to Nowhere—based on the true case of a woman who disappeared with a rich lover after a massive swindle in North Carolina, in an apparent double suicide. Besotted with his lead actress and with moviemaking, the helmer—sorry, a Peter Bart cameo makes the word okay—ignores intimations about her resemblance to her character. Road to Nowhere consists of the action on and off set—featuring a nosy insurance guy, a pushy screenwriter-friend, a crime blogger—as well as unannounced passages from the movie within the movie.
The borderless mise-en-abyme of fiction and reality isn’t intended as a suspenseful riddle to be worked out. Rather, against the backdrop of the verdant Smoky Mountains, the mood is of an easy but suffusing enchantment that overshadows the potentially sordid backstory. Characteristically, and true to the title, there’s not a lot of forward motion here: actress Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon) quickly becomes the lover of Santayana-quoting director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan), the two watching Criterion classics back in their room; moments of intrigue (small-plane crash, a corpse in a tunnel) from the film being made unfold with a muted inevitability. The self-involvement and professionalism of Haven’s actors come across without parody. Haven contends with budget constraints and screenplay compromises but could potentially finish with less grief than that which has plagued Hellman since the mid-Seventies.
Without succumbing to any romance about the magic of motion pictures, Hellman imbues Road to Nowhere with a haunted yet hallowed quality. But it isn’t echoing the phantasmagorical Hollywood dream factory of Mulholland Drive, to which I’ve heard Hellman’s picture unfavorably compared; the intrusion of the facts of the “true crime” doesn’t play as a fall from grace for Haven and his femme fatale ingénue Laurel (who is cast partly on the basis of an aw-shucks Web video). The film’s sense of quiet (framed by rueful Tom Russell songs) clings especially to the earthily lit Haven—it reflects the intensity of his investment in the story, in Laurel’s beauty, or even simply in the realization of his project. Though the film couldn’t be further from Cockfighter and Haven less like that film’s protagonist (Hellman muse Warren Oates, who is quoted at one point) there’s an affinity in their total absorption in their pursuits.
It’s hard to resist connecting the crime story underpinning the film within the film with the aura of legend surrounding Hellman, whom one could imagine Haven quoting as well. The contemporary-looking leads clash with memories of characters from Hellman’s Sixties and Seventies films; Cliff De Young, in a tricky double role, might be a cleaned-up ambassador from that era, while the director once again casts a singer-songwriter, the stick-insect-like Waylon Payne. Hellman, whose 2006 short Stanley’s Girlfriend (part of the omnibus Trapped Ashes) involved two filmmakers, hasn’t made a movie on the level of his most famous work. But though he’s not the kind of filmmaker who puts himself front and center, there’s pent-up desire infusing every frame in a story that takes disappointment as a given.