Review: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Director: 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 kinds of things happen but about which sadly little can be said. There are also films in which almost nothing happens but about which you never speak out. ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ clearly falls into the latter category. This 1971 American production introduces the young driver of a Chevrolet and his equally young mechanic. They traverse the country without a goal and without looking further ahead than the next day. We also step in with the driver of a GTO, a huge chatterbox who also seems to have no purpose. During the 102 minutes that we follow those characters, nothing seems to happen to warrant a movie of this length. But as is usually the case with art house films, it is not about the events themselves but about the deeper layers below.

It is clear that the journey through provincial America must be interpreted metaphorically, although that does not clarify the meaning of the film. Director Hellman seems to mainly want to confront us with different ways of living. In this way, the young driver and his mechanic have detached 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 characters in this film – is another story apart. He has a curious habit of treating every hitchhiker he takes with another life story. For example, he changes his identity every day, so that as a viewer you ultimately have to ask whether the man has his own identity at all.

Equally opaque is the girl, who first gets into the boys’ seat and then back into the GTO. She too lives by the day, but where the boys always remain passive, she takes initiative when necessary. But where the girl comes from and what drives her is not clear. 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. It is inevitable that one of the boys will eventually become attached to the girl, but what is Hellman saying? That detachment never works? That attachment is the root of all evil? It never becomes clear, as so much is not clear here.

Yet ‘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 talks of the GTO are very 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 petrol stations. Those images, combined with the lack of background music and narrative tension, ensure that the viewer becomes almost as alienated as the characters.

Another thing that stands out 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 put down by Warren Oates, who would already succumb to a heart attack at the age of 54. That hindsight science gives the film a tragedy that it does not have of its own.

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

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