(director: Monte Hellman; screenwriter: Steven Gaydos; cinematographer: Josep M. Civit; editor: Celine Ameslon; music: Tom Russell; cast: Cliff De Young (Cary Stewart/Rafe Tachen), Waylon Payne (Bruno Brotherton), Tygh Runyan (Mitch Haven), Shannyn Sossamon (Laurel Graham/Velma Duran), Dominique Swain (Nathalie Post), Bonnie Pointer (Singer), John Diehl (Officer Billings); Runtime: 121; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Monte Hellman/Melissa Hellman/Steven Gaydos; Monterey Media; 2010)

“Becomes less clever the more clever it gets.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is legendary 79-year-old cult director Monte Hellman’s (“Two-Lane Blacktop”/“Cockfighter”/”The Shooting”)first film in twentyone-years (he taught film at Cal Arts during that period), after the bomb he directed in 1989 called “Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!”.

The “Road to Nowhere” is a difficult narrative to navigate because the viewer is never given all the details of the plot and the filmmaker never tries to clear things up, as he’s more interested in showing how a film is made by its creative team than anything else and leaves it up to the audience to interpret what’s onscreen.

The low-budget neo-noir film is about a passionate, pretentious, and self-absorbed filmmaker, Mitch Haven (Tygh Runyan), trying to make an art film about an unresolved true mystery story in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, where either art imitates life or vice versa. For those who like linear stories that are resolved, this one is only murky, inexplicable and surreal. It blurs the lines between reality and fiction, as it keeps the viewer from getting a handle on the story (the truth) by making the shooting of the film within the film blurred from the actual film and leaving us in limbo (literally on a road to nowhere) with a strange ending that only makes things more mysterious but not necessarily better.

There are also clips of Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Aside from showing respect for these great films, I can’t see what they have to do with this film–unless it’s like a junk omelet and anything thrown in goes.Writer Steven Gaydos, Variety executive editor and long-time Hellmancollaborator, turns in a clever but obtuse screenplay, that becomes less clever the more clever it gets even if it never gets to the point of losing me.

Young director Mitch Haven, once respected in Hollywood, buys investigative journalist Nathalie Post’s (Dominique Swain) blog on a true unsolved mystery in the Smoky Mountains involving possible faked suicides and a grand theft insurance fraud, and gets Hollywood to back his film for his comeback. On location in Asheville, N.C., the director plans to shoot his version of the story and hires a screenwriter (Rob Kolar) to change things his way and shuns using a big name star by hiring instead the unknown actress Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon) as co-star, whose only film credit was in a little seen vampire movie. The director is enthralled that Laurel is a dead ringer for both Louise Brooks and the real crime story heroine Velma Duran. In fact we are led to believe Laurel is Velma, as she receives phone calls from London, Verona and Rome from corrupt government big wheel Rafe Tachen (Cliff De Young)–the real boyfriend of Velma’s. The director becomes obsessed with his star, and writes a bigger part for her while others complain they also want lines written for them. Mitch hires the surly hillbilly insurance investigator Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne) as technical adviser, who is only interested in finding the truth in contrast to the director who is only interested in making a masterpiece. We learn in fits and starts that the true story involves a possible double suicide: Velma and her politico co-conspirator lover Rafe Tachen die in a suspicious small plane crash into a lake, which leaves hanging the question of a $100 million missing–which they may or may not be involved with, something the filmmaker only brings up but is not interested in going down that path.

The actors supposedly become the characters they are playing (with De Young playing both the real-life Rafe and the screen version Rafe, thereby making him the main culprit in confusing the audience as to what’s true and what’s only acting), as the film’s intense director finds himself no longer able to distinguish what is happening outside from the picture and has lost his sense of objectivity.

The multi-layered narrative gives one much to muse over of how films are creative experiences, but the question that hangs over this film is if its puzzling conundrum over recognizing the difference between truth and fiction is one that’s worth answering if we’re not given a fair chance to answer it. I guess that all depends on how one relates to the characters, since this is a character driven picture and it cares about little else.

Mitch Haven, who among other things shares the same initials as Monte Hellman, declares during one of his wise man rants that as a director his three most important jobs are “casting, casting and casting.” With that in mind, I thought one of the pic’s serious problems was in the casting: Runyan was a little stiff in his earnest stand-in role for Hellman and Sossamon didn’t particularly move me in the femme fatale role even if she’s an ideal heroine for a Hellman film. Yet I found myself intrigued by this complex mysterious web I was drawn into that had so many unanswered questions that kept me looking for the truth through art, while realizing the MH in the film had lost his way following the same compass point in searching for his version of the truth.