Road to Nowhere


A noir setup.

A noir setup.

(2010) Thriller (Monterey Media) Tygh Runyan, Shannyn Sossamon, Dominique Swain, John Diehl, Cliff De Young, Waylon Payne, Robert Kolar, Nic Paul, Fabio Testi, Fabio Tricamo, Moxie, Peter Bart, Pete Manos, Mallory Culbert, Beck Latimore, Thomas Nelson, Bonnie Pointer, Jim Galan, Jim Rowell, Gregory Rentis, Larry Lerner, Lathan McKay, Michael Bigham, Araceli Lemos, Sarah Dorsey. Directed by Monte Hellman

I have heard it said that movies are a reflection of real life, and as time has gone by, real life has become a reflection of the movies. There is an awful lot of truth in that, sometimes more than we know.

Mitchell Haven (Runyan) is a moviemaker working on a film in North Carolina about a crime scandal. He has hired virtual unknown actress Lauren Graham (Sossamon) to play the role of Velma Duran (Sossamon), daughter of a Cuban national involved in an embezzling scheme with politician Rafe Taschen, played by actor Cary Stewart (De Young).

But art may well be imitating art as the director begins to fall for his leading lady, who may know more about the original crime than she lets on. And as flashbacks of the original crime tell us, the lines between movie and life are starting to blur significantly.

There is a definite noir feel here almost to the point of parody. Hellman is well-known for more anti-establishment sorts of films that tend to break rules and take chances. This is as mainstream a film as he’s directed (at least that I’ve seen), Silent Night Deadly Night 3 notwithstanding – it was subversive for its time as I recall (I haven’t seen it in almost 20 years).

I have to admit that most of my impression of Sossamon has been fairly rote, but she really shines here and proves that she is well-suited to a mysterious femme fatale role. She tends to get more sexpot roles and while she does well with those, the added air of mystery and potential mayhem really suits her. Not that Shannyn Sossamon is planning to murder anyone, mind you. She just plays someone like that on TV….or, in this movie.

One of the big problems here is that Hellman jumps back and forth from the movie to the crime (using the same actors playing the actors who committed the crime) and very often you are confused as to what you are watching which I suspect is deliberate on Hellman’s part. Fiction and reality collide and merge until it is impossible to tell which is which and perhaps that’s the whole point. It didn’t work for me however, possibly because I was being overly analytical about it. Sometimes it’s best just to let things kind of happen and allow them to wash over you without overthinking them.

This is a bit intellectual as noir films go, and a bit noir as intellectual films go. It’s really neither six of one nor half a dozen of the other and curiously unsatisfying when all is said and done. This isn’t the movie I would have expected Hellman to mount a comeback on. Not that I want to see him rehash his old style but I would have hoped for something a little less pedantic than this.

WHY RENT THIS: Sossamon is at her very best.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Often confusing, particularly as to timeline.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language (though not a ton) and a brief scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Hellman’s first feature film in 21 years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A Q&A from the Nashville Film Festival and on the Blu-Ray edition, an interview with Sossamon.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $161,619 on a $5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shameless
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Bank Job

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Wild


Reese Witherspoon thinks she's found a place without paparazzi but she's keeping an eye out anyway.

Reese Witherspoon thinks she’s found a place without paparazzi but she’s keeping an eye out anyway.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, W. Earl Brown, Kevin Rankin, Michiel Huisman, Gaby Hoffman, Keene McRae, Brian van Holt, Cliff De Young, Mo McRae, Will Cuddy, Leigh Parker, Nick Eversman, Ray Mist, Randy Schulman, Cathryn de Prume, Kurt Conroyd, Ted De Chatelet, Jeffee Newman, Art Alexakis, Beth Hall. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

Sometimes life throws things at us that we just can’t bear. We make bad choices because of it, go down paths we were never meant to explore and find ourselves lost. Few people can find their way back from these deviations from course.

Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) is a young 26-year-old woman starting an 1,100-mile hike on the rugged but beautiful Pacific Crest Trail which starts at the Mexican border and ends at the Canadian. She only plans on going from the southern terminus into Ashland, Oregon but it’s still a daunting prospect, considering she has virtually no experience whatsoever with long distance hiking.

Cheryl has had some tough times of late. Her mom (Dern) passed away suddenly of cancer. She descended into heroin addiction and unprotected sex with multiple partners. Her marriage to Paul (Sadoski) has ended in divorce. Her life was a mess and she knew it. She felt that she needed to clear all the toxins out of her system by “walking it out” as her mother would have put it. So she decided that, having seen a book on the trail in her local bookstore in Minnesota that this would be her best way to get herself out of the world for a little while, get herself right and move on with her life.

The way isn’t without challenges. Her first day only nets her five miles in a harsh desert climate – at that rate it would take her 220 days to finish her hike – or about 130 more than she thought. She has difficulty setting up her tent – it takes her hours. Then she figures out that she has purchased the wrong fuel for her cookstove, meaning that she’ll have to eat her dehydrated meals as a cold mush. Not particularly appealing. She’s also managed to get boots that are too tight and are causing some major issues.

There are other pitfalls as well, many of them human – men who want to get into her pants, by flattery or by force. She feels incredibly lonely and there is little to do but think about what got her there in the first place. With a bulldog-like persistence and a toughness that would surprise anyone who thought this petite blonde had any in her, she adapts and overcomes, winning over admirers on the trail – but the question is will this be enough to change her life?

Vallee, whose last film (Dallas Buyers Club) won Oscars for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, might just repeat that feat here. Witherspoon with already one statuette to her credit for Walk the Line is absolutely wonderful here, eschewing Hollywood glamour for the realism of trail life and the tawdry existence that preceded it. She is in nearly every scene, often alone, This is her film to carry and carry it she does, imbuing Cheryl with vulnerability which eventually becomes an inner toughness.

Dern also turns in an award-worthy performance as the optimistic mom who has enough inner strength to raise two children alone after leaving an abusive alcoholic husband. She is reinventing herself when her life takes a tragic turn but for the most part she remains a breath of fresh air throughout, trying to soldier on despite having almost no money. She is representative of a million single moms out there, although I would have to say that I don’t think many would have the sort of life philosophy that Bobbi (Cheryl’s mom) had.

Vallee tells the story mainly through a sequence of flashbacks which take many different forms. Some are mere flashes, only lasting a second or two while others are fully formed scenes that play in Cheryl’s mind. Others are things her mind is on concurrent to the events of her hike, happening silently. Cheryl narrates from her journal and leaves messages at way stations, quoting diverse authors and poets. She becomes something of a celebrity on the trail, being one of the few women hiking alone and certainly the only one hiking alone on as much of it as she is.

The cinematography by Yves Belanger is breathtaking, but then again he has quite the canvas to work with. The music is simple and non-treacly, often using popular songs by artists like Paul Simon and the Hollies to pull the story along. Nick Hornsby’s script is smart and well-reasoned for the most part but one of the main objections I have to the movie is the lack of connection from A to B to C. We know that Cheryl sinks into a morass of alcohol, heroin and unprotected sex after her mom passes away but we don’t see how that happens; one moment she’s caring for her mom, the next she’s finding out she passed away, the next she’s sitting in a bar trolling for men and the next she’s shooting up. We see the descent in bits and pieces, like a book with pages missing. The ascent is much more drawn out.

While this isn’t the best film to come out in 2014, it has some of the best performances in it. Witherspoon alone is reason enough to catch this movie in theaters while it’s still out there – the scenery is also best seen on a big screen. Definitely one that should be on your must-see list this season.

REASONS TO GO: A searing performance by Witherspoon, nearly certain to get an Oscar nomination if not the win and Dern may well join her. Gorgeous cinematography. Incredible story.
REASONS TO STAY: Never really get a sense of why Cheryl moves from one mindset to another.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual content, a fair amount of nudity, some drug use and a good deal of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Cheryl Strayed appears in the film as the woman driving the truck who drops off Reese Witherspoon at the beginning of the film. Also, the daughter of Cheryl Strayed plays Cheryl as a little girl in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tracks
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies