The Film: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
The Principles: Monte Hellman (Director). Rudy Wurlitzer (Writer). Warren Oates. James Taylor. Dennis Wilson. Laurie Bird.
The Premise: A driver (Taylor), a mechanic (Wilson) and their ‘55 Chevy (it’s a character in its own right) live their lives one drag race at a time. It’s only when they meet a young hitchhiker (Bird) and find themselves in a cross-country race with the owner of a bright yellow GTO (Oates) that things take a turn for the different. But then again…
Is It Good: Good works. So does brilliant. Resonant fits in there as well.
Monte Hellman makes a movie that’s ostensibly about a drag race across the country and injects it with some pretty somber meditations on life and identity and existence. It’s as much a movie about knowing who you are and who you want to be as it is a movie about a badass ‘55 Chevy matching valves with a 1970 Pontiac GTO (not a Judge, though).
James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (both in their only acting roles) are The Driver and The Mechanic, respectively. I suppose one could say that those are the characters‘ names, but they‘re more like definitions. And they’re not definitions laid upon them by Hellman or the audience, they‘re definitions applied and lived by these two young men. Their names don‘t matter. These two men barely exist as people – they’re just The Driver and The Mechanic. It’s their entire identity, their entire existence wrapped up and stamped with a one-word label. And they don’t aspire to be anything else – you can see it in the vehicle they drive. If a man’s car is an extension of himself, then that primer-gray ‘55 Chevy says it all. It’s ugly and it’s loud and it’s intimidating. It doesn’t invite much conversation and it’s completely unconcerned with what you may think of it. Like our two young men, it exists for one purpose – and that’s to go fast. Faster than you. Nothing else matters.
Nothing else matters, that is, until (of course) a girl shows up. But she’s not “a girl” in the classical cinematic sense. Laurie Bird’s hitchhiker is a sort of contrast to our two gentlemen in that she hasn’t figured out who she is. She doesn’t have a definition or an identity – she’s just The Girl, and she’s trying to fill in the blanks. But she also represents something (seemingly) new for The Driver in that she’s someone with whom he wants to make a connection. Over time she becomes a sort of…external motivation for some of his actions and you can see his character start to blossom, if only slightly. The reasons for this could vary – maybe he sees her (for lack of a better phrase) blank slate as something onto which he can project parts of himself, maybe it’s nothing more than simple jealousy because The Mechanic had her first. Whatever the reason, she represents a need in The Driver that he may or may not have ever known he had.
But these three kids aren’t the only ones on the road. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Warren Oates’ GTO. Like our two gentlemen, he’s a man without an identity, but where was The Driver and The Mechanic are defined by what they do, GTO is defined (as the name would suggest) by what he has. As a person, GTO is empty. He’s disconnected from humanity and its taken it’s toll, but no matter how badly he wants a connection – any connection at all – he doesn’t have the internal capacity to make it. So he picks up the slack with flash and glamour. In direct contrast to the primer-gray ‘55 Chevy, Oates’ 1970 GTO is beautiful. It’s sleek and bright yellow and it’s decked out with the necessary eye-catching accoutrements. It too exists for one purpose – to be a conversation starter. It is not, however, an extension of GTO’s self – which is precisely why he owns it – he wants people to think it is. He wants people to associate its looks and its power with him and he uses it to pick up hitchhikers one after the other, bombarding them with facts and stats about how powerful the machine is and regaling them with tales of blacktop glory and making up stories about himself and where he comes from, desperately seeking attention from someone with whom he can make any sort of meaningful connection, but it’s not until he sees The Girl at a gas station that he finds what he’s truly looking for. For whatever reason GTO feels like he’s wasted his life and he’s desperate to reclaim it. The Girl represents his need to go back to a time where he was undefined and still had the whole world in front of him. What he’s truly looking for is a chance to start over. Nothing else matters.
And it’s here, once this group of people meet up, where the meat of not only the story but the film itself really gets thick. If you haven’t seen it I don’t want to spoil you, but a little “My car’s better than your car” sparring leads The Driver and GTO to make a pink-slip bet on a cross-country race – from New Mexico to Washington D.C.. Each of these men has essentially gambled their entire lives on the outcome of this trip and it’s with this little element in place that the film really flexes its thematic muscles.
Is It Worth A Look: Li’l bit. And even though it’s very much (hell, primarily) an artful, heavy thinker of a film, it’s also a road movie and Hellman never forgets that. Though where a lot of these types of movies paint the open road as a metaphor for freedom and having your entire life ahead of you, Hellman closes it way down. He doesn’t saddle the titular surface with one definition or purpose, unless you wanted to say that it represented life itself in that it can be lonely, but it’s sprinkled with little moments and people and places and experiences and it can lead those things away from you just as easily as it led them to you and what’s important is how you handle those moments. This is a film about how characters in very different places in terms of their own existence handle those moments and each other and what comes from it.
Random Anecdotes: This movie sounds amazing. There’s a scene where The Driver is tearing ass down a back road and he comes up on a garbage truck that’s going extremely slow. The sound that came out of my surround setup as he downshifted and slowed down? *audiogasm* The music is great too, although neither Taylor nor Wilson provided any for the soundtrack. Hi-five for Hellman 0n that one – it would probably have been a studio mandate had it been made today.
Cinematc Soulmates: Vanishing Point. Easy Rider.