GREATEST CAR MOVIE, EVER! That’s not to say it’s the greatest road movie ever, though it may be that, too. This minimalist masterpiece is one of the greatest American films to come out of the 1970’s. As the pinnacle of director Monte Hellman’s career, I believe it tops much of what came from many of the more celebrated filmmakers of the decade, including any of the movies made by Martin Scorcese or Brian De Palma.
“Two-Lane Blacktop” follows the intersection of the paths of two very different kinds of road warriors. On one side there is the ’55 Chevy with its Driver (singer James Taylor) and its Mechanic (Beach Boy Dennis Wilson). No names for any of the major characters are ever given. When the two young men talk it is usually to each other and only about cars. On the rare occasions they interact with other human beings, it’s usually to set up a race against THEIR car.
At this point, they’ve stripped down their lives to the minimum. Their car appears old and unpainted and even the interior has been stripped down to make the vehicle as light as possible. Under the hood, though, is an engine that sets them as the equal or greater of everyone they encounter. Beyond this power is the finesse of the driver and the mechanic who constantly adjusts and tunes the car to provide any incremental increase in performance that might be possible.
The polar opposite of this crew is the driver referred to by the make of his car, GTO (Warren Oates). While the others are the image of a kind of zen-calm, you can almost smell the sweat and self-loathing coming off of GTO. While the others are happy with the sense of order and equilibrium they have established in their lives, GTO desperately wants to reach out to others, but to no avail. He picks a series of hitchhikers for company but produces a different story to tell each one. He also drives a brand-new, off-the-line GTO, but doesn’t really know anything about cars.
As the film opens, each car is in California. Heading west on the same route, they cross paths several times until GTO, paranoid of Chevy’s shadow, challenges the Driver to a race to Washington, D.C. The Driver agrees only if they race for the pink slips to their cars.
Of course, if there could be any complication to this event, it would be a GIRL. Laurie Bird plays a young hitchhiker who early on climbs into the backseat of the Chevy while its owners are eating. Not used to addressing outsiders, neither verbally acknowledge her presence until they are several miles down the road.
GTO and the others have many opportunities along the way to interact outside of their vehicles. Everyone seems to know that Oates is full of s**t but develop an acceptance, maybe even an affection for him anyway. Eventually, they come to the dim awareness that they are no longing competing for their cars, but for the desire of the girl. As the withdrawn Driver is as trapped by his chosen path as GTO is, neither seems able to win.
Many critics have discussed the influences of the French New Wave or the Western on this film. To me, it’s more like a great Japanese Samurai picture, the kind where great warriors without masters roam the countryside, testing their skills and battling demons both from within and without before moving on to the next town. The path they have chosen is not about their destination but about how they choose to live their lives. For those who know the genre, the Chevy could easily be the dorkier Lone Wolf and Cub while GTO could be a far less skilled Zatoichi. Either may physically reach their destination, but only another 20 movies of the same pain and heartbreak await them.
The road movie is in many ways like the gangter or crime film. We embrace movies about outlaw elements of society for a momentary sense of freedom from lives that may feel like a prison. Its bars are composed of the laws and rules that restrict our lives. Audiences want the occasional surrogate that is able to exist outside of the prison and can live by their own, self-defined code. What Hellman has created is a film where that chosen path and code has become the new prison of our anti-heroes. When you have built your own cell around yourself, how much more difficult can it be to escape?
Get the whole story in our MONTE HELLMAN SPECTACULAR! Read the feature KUBRICK IDEAS ON A CORMAN BUDGET: THE GREATNEss OF MONTE HELLMAN. Plus, read our exclusive MONTE HELLMAN INTERVIEW: EXPLOITATION OR EXISTENTIALISM? Read all of our Monte Hellman movie reviews: THE SHOOTING, RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, FLIGHT TO FURY, CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37, and the amazing COCKFIGHTER.