Review: Two Lane Blacktop (1971)

Two Lane Blacktop (1971)

Directed by: Monte Hellman | 102 minutes | drama | Actors: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, Harry Dean Stanton, David Drake, Richard Ruth, Rudy Wurlitzer, Jaclyn Hellman, Bill Keller, Don Samuels, Charles Moore, Tom Green, WH Harrison, Alan Vint, Illa Ginnaven George Mitchell, AJ Solari, Katherine Squire, Melissa Hellman, Jay Wheatley, James Mitchum, Kreag Caffey, Tom Witenbarger, Glen Rogers

There are those films in which all sorts of things happen but about which there is sadly little to tell. There are also films in which almost nothing happens but about which you never get out. ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ clearly falls into the latter category. In this American production from 1971, we meet the young driver of a Chevrolet and his equally young mechanic. They traverse the country, aimlessly and without looking further ahead than the next day. We also get in with the driver of a GTO, a huge chatterbox that doesn’t seem to have a purpose either. During the 102 minutes that we follow those characters, nothing seems to happen to justify a film of this length. But as is usually the case with art-house films, it’s not about the events themselves, but about the deeper layers underneath.

It is clear that the journey through provincial America must be interpreted metaphorically, although that does not make the meaning of the film clear. Director Hellman mainly seems to want to confront us with different ways of living. In this way the young driver and his mechanic have separated themselves from home, hearth, past and future. Completely detached they live purely in the present, without committing themselves and without focusing on anything other than their car. The driver of the GTO – unnamed, like all the characters in this film – is another story in its own right. He has the curious habit of treating every hitchhiker he takes with him to yet another life story. For example, he changes his identity every day, so that as a viewer you ultimately have to ask the question whether the man has an identity of his own at all.

Equally opaque is the girl, who gets in first with the boys and then again with the GTO. She also lives by the day, but where the boys always remain passive, she does take the initiative when necessary. But it is not clear where the girl comes from and what drives her. What director Hellman omits a bit here is to show the impact and meaning of the different ways of life. The boys are completely Zen in their car, but they don’t seem really satisfied either. That one of the boys eventually becomes attached to the girl is inevitable, but what does Hellman mean by this? That detachment never works? That attachment is the root of all evil? It never becomes clear, as so much does not become clear here.

Still, ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ is not an annoying film. The race between the boys and the GTO may be nothing but the encounters along the way and the silly talk of the GTO are certainly entertaining. Moreover, the film is visually an experience. In ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ we are treated to vast landscapes against which people and cars form lonely and isolated objects. It is Edward Hopper’s America, an America of vast plains, deserted roads and abandoned gas stations. Those images, combined with the lack of background music and narrative tension, ensure that the viewer becomes almost as alienated as the characters.

What’s also striking about ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ is the tragic fate of the cast. The boys are played by two well-known musicians, the driver by singer-songwriter James Taylor, the mechanic by Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. The latter would drown in 1983, shortly after his 39th birthday. The girl is played by Laurie Bird, a young actress who commits suicide eight years after ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’. Finally, the GTO is formidably portrayed by Warren Oates, who would succumb to a heart attack at the age of 54. This hindsight gives the film a tragedy that it does not have in itself.

Although ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ lacks a lot, it is a film that you can’t pass up as a fan. Despite the lack of explanation, it is crystal clear that director Hellman has something to say about America just after the happy hippie era. But even if it never becomes clear what exactly he wants to say, ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ is still worthwhile with its quiet images, its wonderfully languid pace and its intriguing characters. Especially if you like cinematic curiosities

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