For indie filmmakers looking to make a mark, the puzzle film is a useful way to go: an attention-grabbing subgenre (“Memento” and “Primer” being representative examples of the form) that makes people talk.
Director Monte Hellman, who ju
st turned 79, is hardly a young Sundance wannabe trying to make an impression. Leave it to Hellman to work a twist on the format: Instead of giving people a puzzle film that they can spend hours solving, he’s delivered a picture that almost certainly can’t be solved.
At least I don’t think so. “Road to Nowhere” (perhaps a warning title) scrambles its film-within-a-film scenario so that an actual explanation of what’s happening is never quite in view. That makes it tantalizing to watch, as long as you’re willing to play by the movie’s open-ended rules.
Hellman’s career goes back to the ’60s age of Roger Corman-produced exploitation pictures (“Ride in the Whirlwind,” for instance) and includes that singular American classic, the 1971 “Two-Lane Blacktop.” He hasn’t made a feature in 20 years.
But the first 15 minutes or so of “Road to Nowhere” prove that Hellman still has an enormous amount of directing “touch.” From the way a wash of headlights suddenly illuminates the dark night outside a window to the startling nose-down crash of a small plane, the movie we are watching is in skilled hands.
Ah, but what are we watching? Apparently this opening reel is footage from a movie called “Road to Nowhere,” directed by a young filmmaker, Mitchell Haven (played by Tygh Runyan), whose name we’ve seen in the credits.
It’s a true-crime murder tale, but we need to back up a bit to see what Haven’s own story is, before we see more of his film. He’s cast a young unknown (Shannon Sossamyn) as the mystery woman in the story, and he seems to be falling in love with her.
We get strong hints that this young woman may actually be the real-life person Haven’s film is based on. That would be strange indeed, since the real person is supposed to be dead.
Throw in a loudmouth insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) and a blogger (amateurish performance by former “Lolita” Dominique Swain) and you’ve got the ingredients for a mystery, one that Hellman only teases us with, because he’s more interested in levels of truth and illusion than in providing an answer.
That quality will limit the audience for this movie, but the exercise is well-managed. And it raises hope that Hellman won’t wait another 20 years before his next film.
“Road to Nowhere”
“Two-Lane Blacktop” director Monte Hellman makes his first picture in 20 years, a skillfully managed puzzle about a movie crew shooting a true-crime story. But where does the movie end and reality begin? There’s no solution to this mystery, because Hellman is interested in the game itself, an emphasis that will limit the film’s audience but provide some tantalizing intrigue to anybody up for an open-ended riddle.
Rated: R for language, subject matter
Showing: Grand Illusion