Posted by Richard Harland Smith on February 16, 2007
"Well, here we are on the road."
Monte Hellman's 1971 cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop is one of the least understood road movies of all time. Universal picked up this tale of a cross country race between the drivers of a '55 Chevy (singer James Taylor and Beach Boys' drummer Dennis Wilson) and the middle-aged owner of a 1970 Pontiac GTO (Warren Oates) as a package deal when an indie distributor backed out. Instead of another youth hit on the order of Easy Rider (1969), the studio got a deliberately paced meditation on American insecurity born of a society devoid of absolute values. Universal clearly had no idea how to sell the picture (which they promoted as if it were a crime film) and soon pulled their support. Two-Lane Blacktop was sold down the river to the hinterlands of drive-in, grindhouse and repertory screenings, where it developed a surprisingly strong cult following.
What's makes Two-Lane Blacktop especially great and especially evocative of its time is that it defies the expectations even of its defenders. However gearheads and suburban dreamers may idolize the footloose Taylor and Wilson, these two make for a pretty conservative pair. They refuse drugs and spend money frugally to finance their addiction to racing. This need to find identity through comparison (asked how fast his car runs, The Driver answers "Depends on who else is around") sits at the heart of Two-Lane Blacktop. The Driver and The Mechanic are soulless; they have no past, no future. GTO (as Oates' character is identified in the script) constantly changes his past for whomever is riding shotgun. Some critics have cited the race's prize (pink slips) as proof that the film is about possession; I think this is a red herring. These competitors don't want anything from one another but the chance to compare. When the GTO is delayed by engine trouble, The Driver tells him they'll wait. "It doesn't interest me to be 500 miles ahead."
Although the dialogue is spare and the acting of non-professionals Taylor, Wilson and Laurie Bird (as a comely but grating young hitchhiker) is amateur, the combination works. The characterizations feel nuanced and, true to life, nobody learns anything. (Even Easy Rider’s final 12-gauge martyrdom was preferred by 1971 audiences to the lack of closure offered here.) Taylor (the only surviving member of the principle cast) is the most awkward of the young actors but his stumbling delivery sells his discomfiture while Oates contributes the performance of a lifetime as a proud but lonely man desperate for human contact. Among the eclectic supporting cast are Harry Dean Stanton as a randy Okie hitchhiker, the late Alan Vint (Macon County Line) as a good ol' boy and Katherine Squire as a creepy old woman whom GTO obligingly ferries to a country cemetery… which he then refuses to enter, as if unwilling or unable to stand on hallowed ground.
While Two-Lane Blacktop remains a hard sell for modern audiences weaned on the sound and fury of The Fast and the Furious franchaise (Two-Lane's color palette is muted and shadows are shallow, indicative of a film shot cheaply and on the fly), it does offer a compelling windshield view of America at the crossroads. Compare this to what passes for Americana these days in crap like Forrest Gump (1994) and see what has been lost in the translation of one generation to the next.
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