Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)


*. In the beginning there was Easy Rider. Then, two years later, came Vanishing Point and this movie.
*. What sets Two-Lane Blacktop apart is its reticence and general lack of pretensions, the absence of any shaggy symbolism or expression of a larger meaning. Yes there are nods to freedom and the myth of the American West, but where these are central and essential to Easy Rider and Vanishing Point, here they are simply waved at. Freedom, Kris Kristofferson warbles, is just another word for having nothing left to lose. That is, it means nothing. And while the heroes here drive past horses and through the new West, we never feel that they’re modern-day cowboys. Most essays and reviews of the film try to make the connection, in part because Monte Hellman came here from directing Westerns and in part because of the Easy Rider connection, but I don’t see it.
*. Ernest Mathijs: “Blacktop does not hand out themes or messages, it does not instruct or recruit its viewers into anything, nothing is gained and nothing is produced. It embraces nothingness as the ultimate freedom.” I think even this goes too far. There is no nihilistic sublime in the film. But then, I’m not sure how anyone would recognize such a construct.


*. Instead of a spiritual quest or philosophical musings about the meaning of freedom what we have is a paean to the car as machine: a list of technical specifications and a greasy workspace. As such, it’s a movie for people who are more interested in cars than I am. Which is to say, people who have any interest at all in cars.
*. Not only are the Driver and the Mechanic not on a quest, it’s left unclear just what they are doing or where they are going. Presumably, like GTO, they are just bouncing back and forth from coast to coast like a rubber ball. They have no purpose. For them, it’s a bug’s life: you learn to fly, fuck, then die.


*. They’re not even interested in racing, except as a way to get enough cash to get them further down the road. The movie sets up what we think will be a narrative ribbon running to Washington D.C. (a challenge that’s only struck a third of the way in), but right from the start it’s clear nobody cares about getting there first, or even if they get there at all. GTO seems to just want some company, or an audience. What the Driver and Mechanic want is anybody’s guess. God knows they aren’t saying, and you’d have a hard time reading anything from their utterly blank faces.


*. I wonder if there’s ever been a movie where the two leads did so little acting. Of course James Taylor and Dennis Wilson weren’t actors (this would remain their only film) and I imagine Hellman specifically told them not to bother trying. The result is total immobility in stereo.
*. Not that this matters. The cars are more important characters, even getting listed with the cast in the end credits. And the movie is more about Warren Oates’s GTO than it is the Driver and the Mechanic anyway. GTO embodies the storytelling impulse as well as the human factor (Hellman identified with him as a teller of tall tales). We can sort of understand when the Driver blankly tells GTO that he doesn’t want to hear any of his stories because they’re not his problem, but at the same time we know that this means something important is missing in him. What does he care about, aside from driving his car?
*. Put another way, every time we see GTO we wonder what he’s thinking. There’s something going on there, some buried sense of failure and insecurity expressing itself in grandiose fictions and Machiavellian calculations. He’s a con man conning himself.
*. Meanwhile, do we ever feel curious about what the Driver and the Mechanic are thinking? Even the Girl finds both of them boring. The movie just dies when we’re left alone with them.


*. The Driver and Mechanic are curiously modern symbols of alienation. They’re not hippies, or stoners. They’re gearheads, mentally absorbed in the intricacies of their machine. There’s something both very practical and very limited about this.
*. The big problem with this movie, at least relative to Easy Rider and Vanishing Point, is that the two leads have none of the charisma and likeability of Wyatt and Billy, or Koswalski. Personally, I don’t like them at all. I wouldn’t want to speak to them if I met them (though I’m sure the feeling would be reciprocated). Nor would I want to have anything to do with the Girl, who lost me in her panhandling scene.
*. That these people are so unlikeable is no crime, but what is a crime is that they’re not unlikeable in any sort of interesting way. They come across as self-absorbed and not particularly nice (Wilson’s only expression is a slight, self-satisfied smirk, the Driver can be brutally rude, and the Girl is just a sponge). For a road picture, where the audience is forced into a car with such people and taken along for a ride with them, this counts as a major flaw.


*. Another problem with the Driver and Mechanic being so blank is it makes a mush out of the supposed conflict between them and the Girl. She is never a disruptive erotic force. Even at the end, where the Driver seems momentarily determined to get her back, I never had the sense that he really gave a damn about her, and he finally seems content to let her leave. For the Mechanic she is only a one-night stand. The impression I had was that she was aware of this indifference and didn’t see any point riding with them any longer. As she complains, nobody was talking about her rear end!


*. But then there’s GTO. A great actor in a great part. Kent Jones: “There’s not another character like Oates’s in all of American cinema.” I agree (and immediately disagree with the comparisons Jones goes on to make with Frederic March’s character in The Best Years of Our Lives and Bogart in Dark Passage, which make no sense to me). GTO is sui generis: a character without any authentic character of his own. He’s a voice, a monologue, a routine, his mouth running even faster than his souped-up car. You’d never trust him, but you can’t help admiring his flights of self-creation, his rhetorical resiliency, the way he’s never at a loss for words. Not only is he the storyteller, he’s the dreamer, and the sunny optimism of his imagined flights to Florida or Arizona or Chicago or New York balances the dead-faced, silent, nihilism of the Driver and Mechanic.
*. The ending is ambiguous, but I see it as being essentially the same as Easy Rider and Vanishing Point. Our hero races down the road only to liquefy into the asphalt, like a reverse of those cowboys (or Lawrence of Arabia) rising out of desert heat waves. There’s a more mechanical cast here, with the illusion of the film being stuck and melting down in the projector, but the meaning is the same as Wyatt’s bike and Kowalski’s Challenger bursting into flames. It’s the end of the line, and even if it weren’t there would just be more of the same old highway ahead of them.


6 thoughts on “Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

  1. Paul S

    I well remember watching Two-Lane Blacktop for the first time on Alex Cox’s Moviedrome back in the late 80s, early 90s, I played my VHS recording for years until it finally wore out. The Criterion Collection release of this film was a nice Christmas present; no matter how many times I dip into this film, I never get tired of it.


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