CAPSULE: TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, , Laurie Bird

PLOT: Two men obsessed with illegal street-racing race another equally obsessive driver across America. Along the way, all three become increasingly involved with a fickle hippie chick, and inevitably their motivations change.

Still from Two-lane Blacktop (1971)


WHY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: All the main characters are so emotionally detached that at least one of them would nowadays be diagnosed as autistic, and they drive cars very fast for no significant reward because it’s all they know how to do. However, it’s not full-blown car-related weirdness on a level with ‘s  Crash. It’s an unusual film which some people will find interesting, but not really a candidate for the List of the Best Weird Movies ever made.

COMMENTS: I’ve just said that some people will find this extremely offbeat film interesting. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I wanted to, and for the first half, I almost did; but it suffers from the same problems as many of Monte Hellman’s other movies: pared-down characters who don’t say much in an ultra-macho yet deeply symbolic situation, having very little fun. These particular characters are so minimalist that they don’t even have names—Warren Oates plays “G.T.O.” (the make of car he drives), and the others are just called the Driver, the Mechanic, and the Girl. Incidentally, it’s the only movie I’m aware of in which two of the “actors” listed as cast-members are automobiles.

The performance of James Taylor, better known for singing than acting, sometimes transcends wooden and goes all the way to metallic; but in fairness to him, this is exactly how the character’s meant to come across, so maybe he’s a superb actor. The Driver can’t express the slightest flicker of emotion without somehow dragging cars into it, and literally cannot talk about anything else: the one time he tries to, he ends up babbling about the life-cycle of the cicada. The trouble is, how is the audience supposed to engage with a “hero” whose visible emotional spectrum ranges all the way from cigar-store Indian to constipated robot?

Warren Oates gives by far the most complex and interesting performance. Unfortunately, he’s playing another character who is impossible to like. A running joke has him picking up hitchhikers, then bragging about himself and his car in such a tediously obnoxious way that they bail out at the earliest opportunity. He’s also a compulsive liar, and has no more idea how to talk to people than the Driver, whose saving grace is that he seldom attempts to.

As for the Girl, played by a non-actress cast because she was a real hippie, she’s shallow, selfish, irritating, and expresses no interest in any of the men beyond casual promiscuity. She is, however, the voice of reason, bluntly pointing out that the Driver and the Mechanic are boring people who obsess about cars because they’re on “some big masculine power-trip”. Since the crux of the film is a “love” triangle between three people who don’t like each other and whom you don’t like either, it’s difficult to care how things work out between them.

Apart from this, the motives of all concerned are almost non-existent. The Driver and the Mechanic (Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s performance is adequate but lightweight, and since he talks constantly about technical aspects of car engines, not very interesting unless you’re a garage mechanic, which I’m not) usually win only enough money to pay for their next race, aren’t remotely famous, and don’t even seem to enjoy winning. As for G.T.O., he bought a Porsche by way of an unsuccessful charisma transplant.

A particularly odd aspect of the film is that there’s very little footage of cars doing anything exciting, and as for the big race that occupies most of the running-time, you have to keep reminding yourself these guys are supposed to be racing! There’s almost no physical danger, and if you’re hoping for a nail-biting dash to the finish line, all I can say is that Monte Hellman prefers downbeat endings. I’d even hesitate to say that this film ends rather than just stopping.

A lot of reviewers mention the groovy sixties music. In fact there’s very little; a song occasionally plays in the background, but most of the soundtrack is engine noise, and neither of the two professional musicians involved sings or plays a note.

If you’re into gloomy existentialism with cars, this is the film for you! If you’re into fast-paced action, sympathetic characters, or cars that aren’t ugly, you might find it a tad uninvolving. And you’ll probably agree with the studio’s decision to cut the original three-and-a-half-hour running-time by half.

“…a movie of achingly eloquent landscapes and absurdly inert characters.”–J. Hoberman, Village Voice (2000 re-release)

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