"Monte Hellman's first feature film in 21 years is one of his finest and deepest, a twin peak to his 1971 masterpiece, Two Lane Blacktop. Road to Nowhere displays this director's trademark virtues — an elegant compositional eye, tough-minded thematic sense and sharp sensitivity to what goes unspoken between people, especially in moments of deepest feeling." So begins one of exactly two reviews I can find of a film that screened in Venice — in Competition, mind you — where Hellman won a Special Lion for his work overall (not an undisputed honor, as Jury President Quentin Tarantino is a good friend). This, after John Anderson's tantalizing piece appeared in the New York Times in May when Road to Nowhere screened to potential buyers in Cannes.
Most of us have wanted to see this film for some time. Now, thanks to FX Feeney's review for Variety, quoted above, we have to. Before returning to Feeney, here's Robert Beames, the other reviewer (for Obsessed With Film), who's less impressed but nevertheless respectful: "The story is fairly complicated, but simplified: it is about a director who sets out to make a film based on some true events. He finds an unknown actress, with an uncanny resemblance to the real person she is to portray, and hires her immediately. He is soon obsessed with her, to the detriment of his film. But she has her own connection to the material which threatens to lead the production on a disastrous course. It isn't always clear which scenes are taking place in front of or behind the camera." Ultimately, he sees "the film as a bag of reasonably interesting ideas and good individual moments, rather than as a complete and compelling work."
This actress is played by Shannyn Sossamon and, reporting for Reuters, Mike Collett-White notes that Hellman acknowledged that "Sossamon's character had clear parallels with Laurie Bird, who starred in two of Hellman's movies during her brief career. Once romantically linked to Hellman, according to online biographies, she committed suicide in 1979 in her mid-20s. 'We didn't think about that when we were making the movie, but as an afterthought we realized how close this character was to her character,' Hellman told Reuters in an interview. 'After the fact we realized that this really is a kind of tragic story that is very similar to the tragic story of Laurie, and so that's why we dedicated it (to her).'"
Back to Feeney: "'You're not interested in the truth,' shouts the angry insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) hired as a consultant to the production.... Intellectually, [Hellman] is ruminating playfully on the nature of this medium. Emotionally, viscerally, he is not dealing with 'movies' at all, but with the heartfelt illusions we consent to, often on the grandest scales, when we are either in love or at war with the human beings in front of us. The investigator's smoldering outrage may be honestly fact-based or delusional, but in either case, his impulses grow more violent, to the point of life-threatening, the more he feels obliged to act upon his hunches. All this causes the story's several layers to collapse with thrilling clarity onto one plane of suspense at the climax."
So. Until the film reemerges at another festival or in theaters or online, and until another review appears, here's what I've got: Publicist Stephan Lan has been handling PR and his site is hosting a synopsis, a press kit (which includes and interview with Hellman) and four large images. Zimbio's got shots snapped at the premiere.
Thomas Groh's embedded a brief interview (4'33") Arte conducted during the festival which you can listen to in either French or German. The Italian publication Sentieri Selvaggi has posted a one-minute video described thusly: "Monte Hellman walking from his hotel to a cab in Lido di Venezia, September 2010." No lie. That's what it is, and actually, it's rather nicely done. And TAXIDRIVERSTV has posted a 44-second review (or reaction or general commentary), a relaxed affair, in Italian. No idea what he's saying. Look, though, for another related nifty little thing here in another day or two.
Update, 9/14: We may see a few reviews after all. Here's Natasha Senjanovic in the Hollywood Reporter: "Hellman and long-time collaborator writer Steven Gaydos don't really catch the noir drift, nor do they take on narrative deconstruction with the intensity of David Lynch, and their underlying thesis on the malleability of art and truth only scratches the surface of the concept. Yet they've created a hybrid of their own — arthouse pulp. Audiences can either fight it, trying to make sense of the shaky plot, or flow along with the film's languid, doomed romance accompanied by the southern poetics of singer-songwriter Tom Russell."
Update, 9/15: "Cult devotees looking forward this intractable film-within-a-film mystery, written by Variety journalist Steven Gaydos, may find it hard to maintain faith," writes Sight & Sound editor Nick James. "The 'director' in the story tells his writer that his three rules for successful filmmaking are 'casting, casting and casting,' but rarely has a film within a film assembled such a unhappy collection of miscast actors, none of whom manage to bring life or mystery to its proposed conundrum of corruption and murder on a film set."
Update, 9/16: The Road to Nowhere "shapes up as a tale of political skulduggery, though it's really a film about filmmaking, quoting liberally from the movies of old (everything from The Lady Eve to The Spirit of the Beehive)." Xan Brooks in the Guardian: "It's a playful, satisfying affair; a journey down the rabbithole. I hook up with Hellman, now a robust 78, on the beachfront at Venice, where The Road to Nowhere premiered. 'I like puzzles, and movies that you discover as you go along,' Hellman explains. 'Even though he's one of my favourite filmmakers, I've always seen myself as a kind of anti-Hitchcock. I've never understood the way he worked. If you know where a film is going, what's the point of making it?'"
Coverage of the coverage: Venice 2010. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow The Daily Notebook on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.