Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) / Drama-Action
MPAA Rated: R for language and sexuality
Running Time: 102 min.
Cast: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, Harry Dean Stanton (cameo)
Director: Monte Hellman
Screenplay: Rudolph Wurlitzer, Will Corry
A cult film, as they say, which by definition means a film that speaks to a small but loyal (and even obsessive) base of fans, generally regarded as lacking mainstream appeal. Two-Lane Blacktop certainly meets that definition, as there is a contingent of movie fans that find it endlessly fascinating. Part of the appeal, no doubt, comes from the casting, as this is the first (and only) film to star popular singer James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer, Dennis Wilson. Perhaps just as appealing are the classic cars featured, specifically, a 1955 Chevy and a 1970 Pontiac GTO, which was not really a classic car then, but it certainly is now. Lastly, but definitely not least, the film has an existential style, featuring nameless drifters that live from moment to moment without a care, save to race their cars against others that live the same way.
The film starts off with two young men involved in the sport of racing their '55 Chevy, drag style, usually for money or merchandise, although there are occasions when a pink slip is wagered. Taylor plays the driver and Wilson the mechanic, traveling together from town to town, entering whatever drag races they come across. A third party enters their lives in the form of a young female hitchhiker (Bird, Annie Hall), while they constantly have run-ins with an older gentleman (Oates, The Wild Bunch) who wants to put his new souped-up GTO to the test by racing them. The wager is soon made, pink slip for pink slip, for whichever car wins in the cross-country race to Washington DC.
At the risk of upsetting the fans of Two-Lane Blacktop, I must admit that I didn't think it a very good film, despite the excellent performance by Warren Oates as the prevaricating driver of the GTO. Some of its existential counterculture appeal had already been covered in Easy Rider just a couple of years before. The dialogue is sparse, ad-libbed to a large extent, and not all that cohesive in others. Clearly, some of this is intentional, as these are men that just live for one thing only - driving but such a one-topic premise doesn't exactly make for riveting viewing.
Slow as molasses in parts, the film languishes in tangential scenes that do little to push forward any compelling story or meaning. It's the kind of movie that is so slow and quiet that it actually has you searching for sense to it all, and in fact, some viewers have been able to concoct some very interesting notions, using such jargon as freedom, nihilism, and the empty soul of America in the early 1970s.
With a film this disjointed, you have to presume one of two things - either director Monte Hellman (The Terror, The Shooting) knew exactly what he was trying to make here, and every shot, scene, and word of dialogue is intentional, or he didn't, not having a devised plan for what he wanted to do from the outset, shooting from day to day with whatever whims came into his head at the time. Despite some of the things I've read on the subject, I'm still not convinced that he did have a game plan, leading me to conclude that people enjoy Two-Lane Blacktop for what they bring to it, instead of what it brings to them. Perhaps slow and frustrating for most audiences, but if you can find a meaning that works for you, you'll be ahead of the curve.
©2005 Vince Leo