Monte Hellman’s laid back road movie remains a key film of the 1970s.
Two-Lane Blacktop is the spawn of Easy Rider in more ways than one. Not only is it a part of the wave of indie (or at least pseudo-indie) road films that appeared in the wake of that movie (others include Vanishing Point, Five Easy Pieces and Electra Glide in Blue), but it owes its whole existence to an experiment by Universal to copy the style of successful indies of the late Sixties by shooting a series of low-budget – by studio standards – films that gave the director final cut. The series also included Silent Running.
Monte Hellman’s resulting film is a textbook example of the sort of movie that could only be made at the time – it might sound on paper vaguely like a 1970s version of The Fast and the Furious, but in reality, it’s an existential, pretty much plotless tale with four characters who seem to only exist in this moment, un-named and without pasts or futures – but who are still more real, more authentic and more well-drawn than anyone in most recent high-octane, low brain cell count road race films.
James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are the driver and mechanic of a battered, but souped-up ’55 Chevy who travel the country making money through races, legal or otherwise; Warren Oates is the middle-aged GTO driver who tells a different life story to every hitchhiker he picks up, and who winds up in a cross country race through Route 66 with the pair; and Laurie Bird is the hippy drifter who moves from car to car, playing – unintentionally – with the minds and emotions of the men she meets.
And story-wise, that’s pretty much it. The characters don’t have any sense of self-discovery on their road trip, scenes that look as if they will lead to a dramatic event – the long-haired heroes being accosted at a redneck drive-in, for instance – simply end without incident, and the race itself becomes increasingly irrelevant as both cars stop to help each other out, take part in more formal races and share lunch. There’s scant dialogue, and long drawn out moments of stillness, where nothing really happens at all. In the end, the film simply finishes, with nothing resolved.
And all that is why this is such a magnificent film. Because in Two-Lane Blacktop, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination, and that journey is a fascinating, visually stunning study of lives in flux… one that doesn’t need to provide any answers, or even ask any questions. It’s simply a cultural snapshot of people who are on the outside of mainstream society, whether it’s Oates’ lonely, ageing man, Bird’s little girl lost or the two blank-slate road racers.
Casting two musicians in the leads was a masterstroke by Hellman. While Taylor in particular has come in for a lot of criticism for his one-dimensional, emotionless performance, it’s exactly right for this role – a more experienced actor might have tried to bring some depth to the character and would’ve killed it. Instead, Taylor and Wilson both project an internal sadness and emptiness without having to give their characters ‘motivation’ or back-story.
There are those who won’t get it, certainly; pity them, for they don’t know what they are missing. For the more clued-in, Two-Lane Blacktop proves to be a fascinating, absorbing, and essential slice of Seventies Americana – a masterful study of ennui and unidentified longing that is unlike anything else. A cinematic masterpiece, in fact.
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