The independent film world might never have asked for its own Basic Instinct, but it got one anyway with Monte Hellman's Road to Nowhere. Hellman, a cult luminary best known for acid westerns and the road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, takes meta-moviemaking to the next level with this tale of a filmmaker who casts a killer in his film about a real-life crime. Fans of the filmmaker should thrill at the prospect of a new project, but the film's lackadaisical pacing and preoccupation with pulling the rug out from under the audience should relegate this to a limited run on the independent circuit at best.
Indie filmmaker Mitch Haven (Tygh Runyan) hires actress Laurel (Shannyn Sossamon) to play Velma Duran, a real-life tart whose disappearance from a small North Carolina town is still shrouded in mystery. Production gets underway smoothly enough, but Mitch's enchantment with his leading lady begins to get in the way of the moviemaking. As a local insurance investigator becomes increasingly determined to uncover what he thinks is Laurel's identity, the production descends into disarray and begins to mimic the details of the crimes.
Although there's decidedly more class (and less skin) in Road to Nowhere than in Basic Instinct, Hellman's film is at best an understated redux of Paul Verhoeven's sexy potboiler, complete with its own sensationalistic crime and life-imitates-art-imitates-life storytelling style. The film opens with a credit reel that may leave some viewers wondering if they got hoodwinked, but that's just the first layer of Hellman's meditation on where life begins and ends in the movies. Before long, he's got so many different strands going with the same characters-played by the same actors-that you're unsure if you're watching the movie Hellman made, the movie Haven made, or some unwieldy hybrid of the two, with a few other layers of reality thrown in for good measure.
As its femme fatale-waif, Sossamon makes for a convincing (possible) conspirator, but what she's best at is "acting," which is why she does fine as the lead in Haven's film but fails to confidently establish Laurel as a real person. Meanwhile as her director, Runyan is suitably douchebag-pretentious, insisting on truth while willfully ignoring fact and spouting the kind of inane rhetoric that would make audiences want to actively avoid his films. It certainly doesn't help that Hellman leapfrogs between different levels of performance with little regard for orienting the audience, which especially becomes a problem when Hellman decides to wrap things up.
While meta-moviemaking is appealing to some viewers', Hellman spends too much time capturing mood and too little defining his movie universe to give most viewers much to care about. That said, the film is beautifully shot, and surpasses the look of most other low-budget digital independents, even if it doesn't offer a whole lot of intrigue otherwise. Ultimately more of an exercise than a real movie going experience, Road to Nowhere arrives at its destination far too quickly to give the feeling you've actually been on a journey.
Distributor: Monterey Media
Cast: Dominique Swain, Shannyn Sossamon, Cliff De Young, John Diehl, Tygh Runyan and Waylon Payne
Director: Monte Hellman
Screenwriter: Steven Gaydos
Producer: Monte Hellman, Steven Gaydos, Melissa Hellman
Rating: R for some language and brief violence.
Running time: 103 min.
Release date: May 13 ltd.