Friday, July 15, 2011


And so the circle closes. After a decade the saga of Harry Potter sees finality with the release of "The Deathly Hallows, Part II." Few film franchises in history have been as successful or inspired as much fervent loyalty as the Potter films; the only remotely comparable series I can think of is the similarly epic "Star Wars." Nearly as popular (if not moreso) as the books which birthed them, the Potter films occupy a special place in the cultural zeitgeist, existing somewhere between the bloated mass saturation of blockbuster entertainment and the revered world of serious, artistic filmmaking. Director David Yates has done a wonderful job transforming the last four films into works of visual art beyond their literary templates; though he stumbled a bit with his first Potter film he's grown increasingly confident and visionary as a director, easily resulting in the series' best work. While the first film's audience has no doubt followed the series to this point, the level of viewer maturity has not grown up the way the books or the films have. The giddy mentality that accompanied the midnight screening I attended truly saddened me, because it pretty much signifies to me that Yates' film is going to be regarded as merely the final nail in a piece of gross consumerism, rather than as the serious, beautiful work of art it truly is.
Picking up exactly where "The Deathly Hallows, Part I" left off, "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" finds Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) desperately hunting down the final horcruxes in the hopes of weakening Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) to the point where he can be defeated. This last leg takes our heroes to the depths of Gringotts bank and back to Hogwarts, where the final battle will be waged. It's a breathless, fantastic journey that speeds along at a frenzied pace, making this the most action-oriented and spectacular entry in the series as well as one of its darkest. "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" is a basically a downward spiral of frustration, fear, despondency, and destruction; there's a pallor of doom that hangs across every hulking setpiece, and several supporting characters find themselves struggling with the idea that they're caught up in a hopeless struggle that's gone beyond the idea of good and evil, where the only real certainty is death. Harry seems less a beacon of hope than a magnet for defeat; the world seems just as hollowed out, grey, and indifferent as it did in "The Deathly Hallows, Part I."
The destruction that Yates focuses on is magnificent and all-encompassing. Under attack from Voldemort and his army, Hogwarts absolutely crumbles, leaving mountains of rubble and stinking pools of fire blazing across its emptied courtyards. The onslaught of the advancing forces is a brutal machine, seen as a force of total and consuming repressed hatred. At times some of the battle scenes in "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" reach an almost celestial sort of immediacy, replete with a bloodlust, hypnotism, and extravagance that rivals the work Peter Jackson did in "The Two Towers." Yates seems to revel in this mercenary opulence; it almost seems as though the cast's exhaustion is felt through the way Yates allows the to tear down the manufactured world they've inhabited for the last ten years. In that sense the fall of Hogwarts carries with it an extra weight and a crippling sense of poignancy; this is a complete dismantling, the very essence of magic reduced to a bitter and earthly nothingness.
It seems tragic, and it is. Harry martyrs himself for a higher purpose; so too does Severus Snape (Alan Rickman.) Death has an elegance in the Potter universe-it's to be revered and respected, never pandered to, and never toyed with. Certain powers are beyond the grasp of even the most powerful men; certain magics are simply not allowed. Walking with evil boasts a danger. Voldemort's main failing is obviously his pride-even in a world without Harry Potter Voldemort is bound to fall, consumed by his own grandeur and spiraling ever deeper into the dank recesses of his voided personage. Yates understands this and stages "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" as high tragedy, one in which loss surrounds and sorrow falls across the land like so much snow and ash. You are made to feel the hopelessness, the anxiety, the frustration, the terror. But also the anger and the tension, all the repressions that have been building and building across several films. It makes the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort that much more intense, despite knowing the outcome-there's a grotesque, seething violence to their opposition, an encapsulation of what each stands for-and allows the actual drama of the final wand war to find its voice and scream its ferocity across every corner of the screen.
For all its intensity, "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" also has moments of severe loveliness and beauty. Snape's death and the subsequent tour through his memories are rendered in a bittersweet, deeply melancholic haze of sorrow and regret. You can feel the pangs of jealousy as he watches James effortlessly woo away his beloved; we suffer with Severus we see the true lengths to which he goes in order to protect Harry and thereby declare his love. As it's revealed that some of Dumbledore's (Michael Gambon) motives towards Harry may be selfish, Snape's are truly rooted in love and a desire to make something good out of a defeated life. The strength of his character shines here, and Rickman plays it understated, with class. For me this is the emotional crux of the novels and I was glad to see it translates so well to film. Yates drapes these memories in painterly, naturalistic detail, trading effects for the simple beauty of trees waving in the wind and a child's lovelorn gaze. It's gorgeous almost to the point of painful; it's a bursting heart hidden away in a two hour flurry of fire and vengeance. Ron and Hermione finally lock lips here as well; Yates plays it down and sneaks it in the aftermath of a mad dash to destroy a horcrux. The pairing feels natural and real, a gravitation of human emotion breaking away from wizardly horrors and strained exposition.
One of the major complaints lodged against "The Deathly Hallows, Part I" was the pacing. Critics alleged that Yates relied too much on epic, massive landscapes and too little on character interaction. This film remedies that but doesn't sacrifice any of the splendor that Yates has so successfully been capturing throughout his Potter films; what surprises me most is how few of those critics remember that the final book was mostly comprised of aimless searches and bitter bouts of exhaustion. In that regard Yates' film was a perfect evocation of the source material; it's nice to see that here, in the final film, he's finally grown comfortable with allowing his film space to breathe and grow without having to worry about running long or losing viewers because of it. A film like this is a double-edged sword for a director; on the one hand you've got a near limitless budget and the ability to make your wildest visionary dreams come to life, on the other you've got a necessity to fit said film into a very narrow corner of expectation with little allowance for true creative license. It's a marvel to me that Yates has made these last films as pretty as they are; while previous directors' entries in the series have been visually arresting, very few of them have been honestly visual affecting. For that alone Yates deserves praise; "The Deathly Hallows, Parts I and II" are films that can stand up against nearly anything released in the last several years as far as photography is concerned. "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" goes even further and ties that visual element to a near relentless whir of frightening, tense action that blows away most of what's been vomited into the theaters in 2011.
As a modern film that straddles the line between art and commerce, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II" exceeds nearly every expectation that could have been set for it. Yates has sent the series out on an extreme high note and it's unlikely that anyone else could have helmed this vehicle so successfully and steered it towards such lofty artistically inclined shores. While there were certainly comprises (another fairly brief run time, unnecessary moments of levity) the overall result is a fairly unblemished adaptation of this century's most engaging literary phenomenon; it's hard to imagine anything like this coming along again in my film-viewing lifetime. Years ago a friend had to pay me to read the first four Harry Potter novels because I had been so disappointed by the first film (I found it overly childish and somewhat patronizing); I'm glad I took the money and gave the novels, and the later the films, a second chance. While the general audience may not really appreciate the marvel David Yates has given them, the few who have actually grown up with the novels in the intended manner will find an intense, deeply felt end to the story that's been with them for so much of their lives. The saga may have ended, but the magic continues.
And the dragon is really fucking cool.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Reality almost always reads more interesting than any fiction if you're willing to go deep enough. The absurdities and cruelties that befall people just like us are far more crazy and outlandish than anything that could be invented; if it's possible, then somewhere it's probably happened. Few filmmakers get this better than Errol Morris, who excels at unearthing flagrantly bizarre stories and suggesting labyrinthine webs of connection between subjects and events. The people he chooses to highlight are most often a little off themselves, but virtually always well-spoken, candid, and confident in their presentation of events. Morris' ability to so expertly navigate this grandiose, subterranean world allows us a rare glimpse of the truly unexpected; to return back to our average lives having stood on the precipice of something confounding but sublime. His latest film, "Tabloid," goes further than he's ever gone-it's fucked up and strange and funny beyond belief-but it also demonstrates, again, the illusory nature of "truth" and the radical power of self-conceptualization.
"Tabloid" spools out the flabbergasting story of Joyce McKinney circa 1976 through the early '90's. Growing up in Utah amidst very staunch religious values, McKinney's average high school misbehaviour was thought of as "bad girl" antics. One evening she met Kirk Anderson and immediately fell insanely, obsessively in love with him. Anderson was a Mormon but fell hard for McKinney, much to the chagrin of his very traditional parents who opposed the relationship. One day, Anderson simply disappeared. McKinney tracked him, at great expense, to London, where his parents had sent him to be fully indoctrinated into heavy traditional Mormon beliefs. Along with her deeply devoted friend Keith, McKinney chartered a private plane to fly them to London and retrieve Anderson from what McKinney categorized a cult. Abducting Anderson at gunpoint (with a fake gun), she and Keith took him to a cabin in the English countryside where she chained him to a bed and raped him repeatedly over a period of three days. McKinney described the "weekend" as a consensual honeymoon, a sort of "deprogramming" to bring Anderson back. Anderson thought differently; managing to escape during a town outing he later arranged for McKinney's capture and subsequent trial, resulting in a spotlight dance with the British tabloids that lasted for a number of years and made McKinney a bonafide celebrity akin to the Octomoms and Paris Hiltons of today.
The press ate McKinney up and she played it for everything it was worth, delighting in the attention (despite later protestations of the same) and courting the cameras as she traipsed across the London party scene. The trial left the constabulary and courts flabbergasted at the events she recounted, rendered even more unbelievable by the sheer candor and confidence with which McKinney recalled her actions. What McKinney called a honeymoon Anderson described drolly as three days of wide-eyed terror and emasculation, a befouling of his Mormon ideals that left him dangerously close to a lifetime of Satanic influence. Both parties detailed an extreme scenario existing at opposite ends; the majority of those involved in the events seem to recall the "truth" as being an amalgamation as both stories meeting somewhere nearer the middle of the recollections. Morris makes no judgment himself, preferring to let his cast tell their stories and the viewer to make her own assessment.
Those stories are the heart of "Tabloid," and they're very interesting. Aside from McKinney herself, Morris devotes considerable time to two London tabloid journalists, the pilot who flew McKinney and Keith to London, a Mormon missionary, and a Korean geneticist (more on that later.) All of them are extremely open, engaging, and funny. Each reveals layers to the story that confuse the issues at hand and obscure the actualities of the situation they're attempting to recall; Morris makes no attempt to steer the "facts" in any particular direction, nor does he feel compelled to condescend to us by categorizing McKinney's actions as "right" or "wrong." That question is truly blurred because the facts that eventually surface regarding McKinney's background suggest something more sinister may have been at work. On photo assignment for one of the London rags in Los Angeles, Kent Gavin describes the wealth of material he drudged up concerning McKinney's sordid past: through an old obsessed boyfriend, Gavin unearthed hundreds of photos of McKinney engaged in acts of prostitution and light pornography (dramatic bondage and vaguely tasteless nude photography.) McKinney flat out denies the existence of these, claiming photo manipulation and slander; unfortunately Gavin reveals most of the photos (everything that wasn't published) were lost when the paper changed owners years ago. What, exactly, are we supposed to believe?
Peter Tory, the other journalist interviewed, seems to gravitate more toward the lurid. Gleefully reveling in the sexual bizarreness of the case, Tory paints McKinney as something of a ringmaster presiding over her own private circus, turning her tabloid celebrity into a form of bondage and domination over the public at large. Tory sees McKinney and the public as being caught up in a grossly symbiotic relationship with one another; Joyce pulled all the strings and the public lapped it up, demanding more, ever more. Only when things began to get out of McKinney's control (when the pornographic photos began to turn up in the papers) did she retreat and cry foul, railing against the invasions towards her person that she fully embraced and courted only weeks before. McKinney believes the hyperfocused attention drove her to a crippling state of agoraphobia; the hunter becomes the hunted and the hunted becomes the invisible. McKinney also says that "...if you tell a lie long enough eventually you'll believe it"; it's difficult to view her version of events as absolute truth when her self-image is so perfectly constructed to be resistant to anything that might question that version. An argument could be made as to the necessity of this sort of thick skin given McKinney's history with celebrity, but a more likely explanation is far simpler: McKinney only wants to be viewed in the way she wants you to view her.
Manipulation and obsession inform the broader points of "Tabloid." McKinney is obsessed with Kirk Anderson from the moment she meets him, despite the fact that he's a pasty, fat, boring person. By all assessments there was nothing remarkable about him; Peter Tory wonders openly what attracted McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, to Anderson at all. Perhaps it was the ease with which she was able to commandeer his life; perhaps his blandness reflected a brighter image of her for herself. McKinney's friend Keith was similarly obsessed with her; his motivations throughout the ordeal remain obtusely unclear, but we can surmise that he was probably hoping some sort of romantic relationship would eventually blossom between McKinney and himself. The obsession extends outward; as much as McKinney was a slave to her own desires the media was a slave to hers. The public's own obsession with the "truth" of the matter allowed McKinney to carefully craft her persona and create the idea of what she wanted the public to see. At first the relationship worked marvelously, with the various magazines holding McKinney up as something completely new and astonishing-a good Utah girl pushed to the brink by the discriminatory actions of traditional Mormonism, going all in for the sake of love-but eventually they demanded more, digging deeper and rejecting McKinney's crafted image of herself in favor of something closer to a newer, perceived "truth." Only when her manipulations failed did McKinney begin to be bothered by all the attentions; only when she could no longer be who she wanted to be did she view the game distastefully.
A different filmmaker might have challenged McKinney; Morris instead gives us leave to weigh everything we're given and draw our own conclusion about her. If he had challenged her "Tabloid" would have been a much different film, something that perhaps took itself too seriously or purported to be some sort of vehicle for historical accuracy and ideology rather than the strange, delerious tour through weirdness it is. There's nothing sacred in Morris' methodology; it's people as they are, being who they are, judgment be fucked. In that manner "Tabloid" is revelatory, with Morris demonstrating why he's one of the American documentarists most capable of approaching Werner Herzog's "ecstatic truth"; there's a beauty hidden beneath all the layers of the varying narratives that can speak deeply to some of the problems currently plaguing modernity. McKinney's case is messed up but it's far from unique; her tabloid dalliances are almost exactly the same as the ones that exist today, staring you in the face at whatever grocery store line you find yourself standing in. There is no immunity from this sort of media deluge. It's all around you, and it's screaming at you to pay attention to it. This is part of the cultural consciousness; it's your duty to know about this sort of shit.
McKinney is never really able to escape the spotlight, even despite her battle with agoraphobia. Retreating to her parents' spacious farmland to begin a life of loneliness and reflection that she hopes will produce a book about her experiences, McKinney finds herself besieged by story-hungry, photo-stealing opportunists trespassing onto her land and into her privacy yet again. Hoping to dissuade their efforts she brings home a monstrous pit bull she names "Tough Guy"; later she brings home a smaller pit bull runt whom she christens "Booger." It doesn't take long for tragedy to strike. Tough Guy goes crazy and attacks McKinney, severing her hand at the wrist. Booger perishes trying to save McKinney from the carnage. Despondent and isolated, McKinney hears something about cloning and decides to have Booger brought back to life. Paying a doctor in Korea $150,000 to craft a new Booger lands McKinney in the shutter eye once again, even moreso when the cloning is a smashing success yielding five (!) perfect little Boogers for McKinney to fawn over; it's interesting that she again finds herself amidst an ethical maelstrom attached to her actions. It's almost as though Morris is suggesting through this chronology that we demand more from our celebrities than they can possibly give, pushing them to the furthest reaches of outlandish, extreme behaviour. It's not an indictment (he is, after all, the person making the film) but it's close to a warning-be careful about what sort of value you place on entertainment or the lines will begin to blur dramatically.
For all it's over the top theatrics, "Tabloid"'s most striking, transcendent moment comes towards the end during McKinney's sabbatical to her parents' farm. Shooting home footage for unknown purposes, McKinney passes the camera over a backyard plot of land four different times, her narration detailing how little is there, how nothing changes, how stagnancy informs the majority of our surroundings. Watching it you want to find something different in each pass, some important little detail that will allow the scene to make perfect sense, but there's nothing. There's just a want, a nervous, anxious ache to see SOMETHING, anything, rather than the dull and lifeless parade of dropping greenery that makes up the McKinney estate. It's a riddle offered up to both the audience and McKinney. How much do you want this to have meaning? It's difficult to accept that not everything does, that randomness and circumstance shape our lives just as much as the choices we make.
"Tabloid" is ultimately a study of some of those choices and their outcomes; Morris holds this story up for your subjective appraisal. If there is an actual "truth" here it's marvelously obscured by myriad recollection and the dusts of time; you can accept one version or many and come out with a different set of meanings for each. Though not as poetic as some of Morris' other films, "Tabloid" still boasts an impressive amount of visual trickery and playfulness; anything more than a light touch would have detracted from the ridiculously immersive narrative that unfolds. The weight of the issues and problems at hand never bog the film down-it's still laugh out loud funny-but they never fully retreat either, hanging like spectres across the shadowy murk of fuzzy ethics and frustrating revelations that comprise the bulk of the work. Morris wants you to realize that entertainment is never free; someone always pays, and behind every fucked up unbelievable circle of events concerning people far removed from there's a true human element. We may build pedestals to turn people into idols, but we seem just as eager to tear those pedestals down and reduce the idols to ash when they don't meet our expectations and demands. These architectures are eternal; the actual implications of those structures' continued existences are for you to figure out.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


The world is full of mysteries. Places unvisited, wonders unseen. As much as human arrogance posits the idea we've seen everything and are just improving on concepts understood, the reality of existence is that there are hundreds of millions of things that we haven't discovered or haven't even begun to figure out. We're blind out there, grasping at a grandiosity that's more expansive than our minds can really comprehend. Parts of the world bemoan an ancientness that confounds us-Stonehenge, Easter Island, Giza-all of them harbor secrets we can only guess at, crafted out of minds more attuned to the magic song of the natural world than ours, befouled by modernity and detachment. We simply can't imagine the primeval anymore. "Trollhunter" is as much a refutation of that idea as it is a lament for its truth; while on the one hand the film marvels at fairy tales come to life, it also examines the sadness resulting from our inability to really appreciate the wonder of those stories.
"Trollhunter" purports to be a truth of its own; the opening credits posit the conceit that what we're about to view is found footage released by the Norwegian government as a public service. What we're to do with it, how it's to shape the direction of the future, is a matter left to the viewer. The most immediate problem is your personal choice to believe what you're seeing. The film follows a group of university students making a documentary film about bear poaching in the Norwegian wilds. Fiercely regulated by the government, bear hunting is a practice left to a few licensed professionals; rogue activity in decreasing populations is something of a potential ecological crisis. Believing they've found the man responsible, a gruff and tired nomadic loner named Hans (Otto Jesperson), the students pursue him relentlessly; following him on a midnight outing results in a chaotic chase through the Norwegian woods culminating in the destruction of the students' car by some sort of creature, leaving the kids exasperated and bewildered. After giving them a lift, Hans intentionally lets slip what he's really after: trolls. He allows the students to film his hunts provided they make the footage readily available and do whatever he says; the intrigue proves impossible to resist, and so begins a descent into Norwegian mythology and breathless unbelievability.
"Trollhunter" takes an obvious aesthetic cue from "The Blair Witch Project"; shaky handheld cameras and a faux cinema verite style make the picture seem lower budget than it really is, as well as lending it a sense of authenticity. But where "Blair Witch" exacted thrills from little more than suggestion, "Trollhunter" rolls out its titular fiends in a veritable parade of aplomb. Trolls are encountered quickly and without much hunting at all, tromping through woods and creeks and bearing all to a wide-eyed group of jaded college-age intellectuals. It's as though the trolls are a remnant of what gets lost when we reach a certain age, a reminder of the awesome power of imagination and an open mind. Ovredal never treats the trolls as anything less than magical; even as Hans rattles off their different species and bemoans their pitiful intelligence the trolls' depiction practically demands a belief in that missing magic that birthed them so long ago. They are ancient, yes, but they're creatures like any other in Hans' (and the government's) mind, more capable of being nuisances than wondrous sights to behold. The incompatability of the trolls with the modern world is one of the film's major themes; it's somewhat sad to see Hans so indifferent to the implausability of the creatures he's tasked with hunting down but at the same time it's realistic. You would get tired of trailing giant, smelly monsters for 30 years too. "I'm so sick of this crap," Hans mutters from beneath a makeshift suit of armor as he prepares to attempt drawing a blood sample from a rabid Ringlefinch. It's a beautiful moment because it so fully captures exactly what "Trollhunter" is about-the brutality of modern life grinding down the last true moments of magic floating free in the world.
Social criticism aside, "Trollhunter" is a rollicking piece of filmmaking. Ovredal's direction veers perfectly between documentary drolldom and massive spectacle whenever a troll is on the screen. It's difficult not to feel dwarfed during the final sequences, when the team encounters a giant (200 some feet tall) Jotnar troll roaming the barren windswept mountains of Norway's more forgotten regions. It feels like you're in the presence of something ancient and removed and totally beyond what you know; it seems like the gates of Valhalla can't really be that far off. Perspective is the film's greatest strength, and Ovredal exploits it whenever possible, showcasing the incredible coolness and weirdness of his creatures struggling to survive in a world they no longer belong in. The photography is as gorgeous as you'd expect, capturing the wilds of Norway in lush and subdued tones of green and blue, showing a world removed from total modern assimilation despite its ever-creeping onset. The landscapes feel old, haunted and flooded with myths and magicks. Jesperson is wonderful as Hans, coming off as both tired of his life and sensitive to the fact that trolls are just animals attempting to survive as they always have. Hans takes no joy in exterminating them; it's just a job like any other (or not, depending on how ingrained into modernity you've become.) The students, on the other hand, never really seem to grasp what they've uncovered, taking it all in without any real contemplation. The film moves at a fairly breakneck pace but their reactions still seem vaguely inappropriate, without the right amount of deference to legend or respect for the sights they've born witness to. It would probably be difficult to accept, yes, but the sheer majesty of the Jotnar troll should inspire at least some sort of meekness; even i felt it a little just watching it. If that's part of Ovredal's goal, depicting modern malaise, then he's extraordinarily successful in achieving it.
As cool as "Trollhunter" is, it's far from perfect. The plotline concerning the government cover-up is pretty thinly drawn, and aside from Hans there aren't very many strong characters other than the assorted trolls. Humorous asides concerning bear poaching and the difficulty of acquiring bear carcasses indigenous to Norway are funny but ultimately detract from the deeper message of the film. Ovredal needs to choose exactly what he wants his film to be-a layered meditation or blockbuster entertainment-because it isn't adept enough to be both. For me the enormity of the message (and the trolls that present it) makes me wish Ovredal had gone a little more serious with the work but hey, these are fairy tales bought to life. Being able to see that life, a potent mixture of mythology and history coming together, is more than worth the price of admission. The question of authenticity is all but done away with the moment the first troll lumbers into view; this is a work of high fantasy for those who haven't forgotten just how engrossing the surreal and the impossible can be. Seriously creative and seriously fun.

Monday, July 4, 2011


Like most forms of art, film at its best offers total transcendence. Film can transform reality and immerse us in a world not entirely unlike the one we know, but one where the things we do think we know are totally illusory and falsified. This sort of transformation is difficult to achieve in cinema because the artist is working with vision-it's not easy to create a sense of removal from something that's right before the viewer, nor is it easy to break the barriers of time and chronology that we subconsciously impose upon whatever it is we're involved in. When a film gets there, to that enigmatic place where all the assumptions fall breathlessly away, we find ourselves lost in a dream, completely held in sway by the painting moving all around us. Monte Hellman's phenomenal "Road to Nowhere" exists in that place, allowing us a transfixing alternate reality where actuality and fiction intersect in a troubling, deeply hypnotic manner.
That intersection is apparent right in the film's opening shot, of someone popping a DVD labeled "Road to Nowhere" into a computer and pressing 'play.' The hand belongs to director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) and "Road to Nowhere" is the film he's been laboring over for weeks, a labyrinthine but poorly-written film noir based on a bizarre murder-suicide that shook a small town several years back. The details of the crime are hazy, the finer points very convoluted, but it involved financial manipulations on a major scale, false identities, stolen dental records and stolen bodies and what may or may not have been a passionate murder. At the center of the rat's nest is the beautiful, haunted Velma Duran (Shannyn Sossamon) who supposedly drove her car into a lake and drowned after witnessing her possible lover, millionaire Rafe Taschen (Cliff De Young), crash his plane into the placid waters before her. Haven and his writer Steve (Rob Kolar) think the story will make a serious, intense film and embark on an odyssey of creation that sends everyone involved down a major rabbit hole. After casting exploitation actress Laurel Graham (also played by Sossamon) in the role of Velma, Haven's connections to reality begin to waver and the lines between truth and fiction become seriously and irrevocably blurred. This is a film that deals in doppelgangers and intentional obscurities, deeply layered and working with multiple character mirrors, creating a seriously disassociative and magnetic sense of vagueness that engulfs the viewer and brings them ever deeper into Hellman's world. It's film noir in the most epic sense, Raymond Chandler as seen by Howard Hawks in "The Big Sleep" or Mickey Spillane as interpreted by Robert Aldrich in the equally mindfucking "Kiss Me Deadly."
Throughout the film Hellman deconstructs our expectations of linearity and jumps back and forth between the actual details of the actual crime and the machinations of those involved and the ongoing struggles of Haven to bring to life his filmed version of those same events. Having no real knowledge of what truly happened to Velma (or Taschen) demands that Haven and Steve attempt to fill in the blanks themselves, relying on the investigations of sexy, heavy-drinking blogger Nathalie Post(Dominique Swain) and former insurance investigator turned set builder Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne); as the truth grows murkier Haven finds himself obsessing over Velma and in turn Laurel, who bears more than a passing resemblance. Obsession turns to disconnect, disconnect threatens insanity, insanity begets violence and the ideas governing the world we're so comfortable with begin to fall away, leaving us bereft of anchor and drifting further out into dark, misty reaches of the great unknowns. This simple outlining may read loose, but there's so many characters and so many questions working betwixt levels the film becomes a study in dreaming, a demonstration of connectedness across an array of consciousnesses as beguiling as it is narcoleptic.
"Road to Nowhere" is a twisted knot of motivations past rational understanding, an illustration of events that confuse and obfuscate rather than open themselves up to realistic interpretation and appreciation. Hellman paces his film languidly, letting it flow like a quiet stream through all the dirty recesses of the familiar until it washes up against the cold cement walls of consequence. Those familiar with any of the director's work will understand the lulling momentum, the fixation on long takes and the focus on space and style over narrative drive or action. Even the dialogue is meandering and sparse, reveling in suggestion rather than exposition, dealing in evocation and atmosphere rather than explanation. This is heavily stylized filmmaking concerned with rich questions of existentialism, echoing work by Antonioni, Bergman, and Erice, the latter two of whom are paid tribute to in the film as Haven and Laurel wile away late nights watching their work. Fitting that Hellman chose Erice's "Spirit of the Beehive," as it's another fevered, delerious work concerned with the dangerous power of imagination and hidden areas of the world where things don't exist the way we're used to them existing. The photography in "Road to Nowhere" is subtle and understated; the lush greenery of North Carolina bears silent witness to illusion and sensual immersion. The lighting is equally subdued, with the majority of the film taking place in empty nocturnal scenes charged with menace, reminiscent of some of Gregory Crewsdon's staged photography. Hellman clues us in by setting several scenes in tunnels, as though telling us there's only so much of this we're going to get, even with eyes wide open; the narrowness of our field of vision doesn't allow us to take in all the necessary detail. In the hands of a lesser director this sort of manipulation could come off as pretentious but Hellman understands that what isn't seen, what isn't even knowable, is far more important than what's presented, especially when the question is one of philosophy and imagination. Being is more than vision; understanding is a matter of interpretation and introspection, not blind and blithe handholding. Hellman thinks we're better than that, that on some level we're all capable of this sort of psychic navigation.
This is an ambitious film, and it succeeds entirely. Few films in recent memory have mesmerized me so thoroughly. Every loose narrative thread is another path to the dark; every small clue uncovered is another brick in the towering wall of obsession. There's no moral center, no value placed on anything. This is a strange world of passion, sensuality, transfixion, illusion, and above all, danger. Watching it, i was reminded deeply of David Lynch's own noir excursion "Mulholland Drive"; but while Lynch commits fully to the incommensurability of modernity and dreams, Hellman embraces the idea of reality as nothing more than a series of overlapping dreams. Lynch uses dreams as a communication and an obvious alternate space; Hellman constructs dreams as the space upon which all other "realities" issue forth. The constant blur of the "real" and the "constructed real" are meant to fold over into each other and create only one nebulous intersection where one person is the same as many and identity is little more than a man-made imposition on true existence. Whether you're witnessing something that really happened or a simple reimagining of those events becomes utterly irrelevant as the film progresses; what you're left with is simply movement. It is there. It is open. It is everything you want it to be, and it is terrifying in its absolute and engulfing magnificence. "If it made sense i wouldn't be interested," Haven tells Nathalie. I feel the same way.