One of the more pleasantly surprising bits of movie news came over the weekend via a New York Times article detailing the return to active filmmaking duty of Monte Hellman, for whom the term “cult director” might have been invented. Hellman—the auteur behind such singular American movies of the 1960s and 70s as The Shooting, China 9, Liberty 37, Cockfighter, and especially Two-Lane Blacktop—has been at Cannes shopping a new film, Road to Nowhere, his first full-length feature in 20 years.
Now pushing 80, Hellman’s career has been marked by an almost absurd number of missed opportunities. A pair of westerns he shot with Jack Nicholson in 1965—the fairly routine Ride in the Whirlwind and the existentialist inquiry into manhood and identity that is The Shooting—weren’t formally released until 1969, after Nicholson’s star turn in Easy Rider, and then only directly to television.
His masterwork, 1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop, was touted as the quintessential youth (after the genre had pretty much played itself out with the belly-flop of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point the previous year), but its legend grows ever larger. Ostensibly about a cross-country race between a laconic pair of hippies (played inscrutably by James Taylor and Dennis Wilson) and a middle-aged hot-rodder (a never-better Warren Oates), the film devolves into a lament for a lost America that’s every bit as poignant as Easy Rider’s, but painted in subtler shades. The justifiably famous final sequence, with the movie itself seeming to burn up in the projector as the pointlessness of Taylor’s character’s life becomes self-apparent, remains one of the most striking movie endings.
But combining nouvelle vague themes with emotionally and, frequently, vocally reticent characters (Oates’ Frank Mansfield in 1974’s Cockfighter is mostly mute) were never going to be a formula for big box office, and Hellman’s career languished. The truly oddball ’88 effort Iguana—about a disfigured man (played by the rarely expressive Everett McGill, best known as Ed Hurley in Twin Peaks) who takes over an island and cuts off the fingers (and sometimes heads) of those who cross him—unsurprisingly came and went, and after a for-hire gig helming the deathless Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! Hellman’s life as an auteur seemed to be over.
And yet, Hellman was the executive producer of Reservoir Dogs (which could help Road to Nowhere at the Venice Film Festival, where Quentin Tarantino is jury chairman, in September); Two-Lane was credited with inspiring the real-life Cannonball Runs; and new generations exposed to The Shooting and Two-Lane have come to accept him as a formidable presence in independent filmmaking.
Most significant filmmakers’ careers are marked by the occasional fallow period; try late Capra or Ford, Spielberg’s first attempts at making “serious” movies, and post-Birds Hitchcock for proof. That Hellman’s came about due to industry disregard practically makes him a modern-day Nick Ray or Sam Fuller—except that those two never went 20 years without making a feature.
All of which brings us back to his new project, of which the Times notes: “Trying to summarize the plot to Road to Nowhere will get you almost nowhere: a movie within a movie, it involves a North Carolina political scandal, a double suicide, multiple identities and myriad flashbacks, U-turns and pirouettes in the plotline.”
Hellman’s collaborators on the new film also don’t inspire a lot of excitement. The cast is headed by Shannyn Sossamon, whose movie career’s been in a downspiral since her 2001 debut in A Knight’s Tale, and onetime Lolita Dominique Swain; it’s written by Steven Gaydos, who also penned Iguana and is the executive editor at Variety—not exactly a screaming success.
On the other hand, Hellman mainstay Fabio Testi (whose long career includes the main role in Chabrol’s timeless political thriller Nada) returns to the fold and, as early reviewers of Two-Lane, Cockfighter, and some of those others can attest, one counts out Monte Hellman at one’s own peril.
If nothing else, he’s proving he’s still ahead of the curve by shooting Road on a Canon 5D Mark II, which the Times describes as “essentially a still camera” that results in something “looking like a mega-million Hollywood production.”