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.