Arts & CultureVisart Diaries

Two-Lane Blacktop: The Great American Road Movie

Two-Laners (from left) Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird and James Taylor)

James Taylor and Dennis Wilson may not be two names that immediately get you thinking about street racing and illegal drag racing. But maybe they should be. Monte Hellman’s underrated 1971 car racing flick Two-Lane Blacktop is a film that we should be discussing in schools and at dinner parties regarding its impact on modern film and the idea of existentialism in the American dream.

When discussing road movies, people will usually go right to Vanishing Point and Easy Rider before ever mentioning this movie. To be completely honest, even as a big fan of the road movie genre, I hadn’t even heard of this film until a couple years ago, and here I am now just checking it out. So yes, I don’t have any room to shame all the others who haven’t heard of this movie, and if you beat me to it, all the more power to you. 

The plot of Two-Lane Blacktop can be summed up in about a sentence, so here goes: Two street racers start a cross-country race and along the way meet another racer and also a love interest. That’s really it, but it’s essentially what doesn’t happen in the movie that is really interesting. The race takes place along Route 66, beginning in Needles, California, and coming to an end in Washington, DC. James Taylor is referred to only as “The Driver,” while Dennis Wilson goes by “The Mechanic.” The other driver, “GTO,” is played by character actor Warren Oates, a man whose work warrants a column to itself, but let’s stay on topic. A hitchhiker in the movie, played by Laurie Bird, is only credited as “The Girl.”

While Hellman wasn’t keen on character names, he also wasn’t too concerned with filling every minute with unnecessary action scenes. Long stretches of the 102-minute film consist of Taylor and Wilson riding down the road in silence. Most dialogue takes place in the other car, with Oates effortlessly chewing up the scenery in any shot they give him. The silence really works for Taylor and Wilson, who aren’t actual actors to begin with. Giving them less tends to give us more. Overall, I assume this was a purposeful decision by Hellman, but it’s really hard to act natural when you’re doing nothing, so I have to sincerely hand it to Taylor and Wilson for nailing that.

Now, I know I threw around the word existentialism without really going into it too much, so let’s circle back. Road movies — or really films that predate the mid ’60s in general — often painted a clear picture of who was the villain and who was the victor by the end of a film, often much earlier. For instance, when the good cowboy comes to town, he more than likely has a white hat on, while the bandits would all have black hats. Film noir started breaking these concepts down in the ’50s, but the tenants of good vs. evil remained very much intact.

In 1969, Easy Rider came in and blew the doors off any sure expectation of a cookie-cutter happy ending, but you need to look at the American culture as a whole to understand the context. The end of World War II put America on a pedestal as moralists — the cowboys in the white hats. As the Korean War rolled around, one could see the cracks in the armor. The war ended without a winner and communism won out in the end. Vietnam flipped America’s view of itself on its head as an imperialist war that a majority of folks around the country didn’t want to continue by the time it came to its embarrassing end.

Are these all crazy oversimplification? Maybe so, but this is an article about a car movie, not a Ken Burns documentary, so sue me. The simple fact is that art always imitates life, and as people grew disenfranchised with learning that the “American Dream” was a lie and seeing their friends getting drafted only to come back a shell of their former self or not at all, that zeitgeist bled into films, manifesting in storylines about dropping out entirely and creating a new life all on your own — not tied to the idea of getting a job, getting married, having kids and just working until you die or if you’re lucky retiring at 65. In fact, it still sounds familiar in 2019. That whole idea about, “What’s the point of it all?” is what I’m referring to when I say existentialism.

Two-Lane Blacktop plays further into those existentialist themes by the simple fact that it doesn’t even have a clear beginning or end. The film doesn’t do much set up, and the viewer is only able to pick up on the general thrust of the movie from other characters beside The Driver and The Mechanic. As those two meet GTO in New Mexico, they decide to race for pink slips, but at some point in the film they’re just driving GTO’s car for him whenever he gets tired. Hellman sets up a premise only to tell us the premise doesn’t really mean anything. Nothing really means anything and we don’t know where we are going, but I guess we’ll just go there together.

The Girl, who seems to be falling for The Driver eventually leaves with GTO, but after The Driver runs after her she ultimately just leaves with a complete stranger. Nothing means anything. The guys don’t even actually finish the race before GTO decides to pick up two soldiers and continue on his drive without the rest of the crew. Nothing means anything. The film ends with The Driver and The Mechanic competing in an East Tennessee drag race, because why not?

You might be saying, “Why would I want to watch a movie that doesn’t have a clear beginning, middle or end?” I’d suggest the beauty of the film doesn’t lie in its plotlines or moral messaging, it’s in the colors outside the lines. If the movie has a lesson at all, it’s to not worry too much about the destination, because it’s all about what you encounter along the way.

As a postscript, I’d highly recommend this film and digging further into the genre (road movies and existentialism). Road movies aren’t made as often anymore, and when they are they can fit into just about any genre. In the horror genre you have Road Games, The Hitcher and Duel. If you want more Warren Oates in your life then I’d also recommend Race With the Devil, also starring Peter Fonda. Speaking of Peter Fonda, check out Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974).

More recently, there’s The Chase (1995) starring Charlie Sheen. In the early 00’s we had Joy Ride, which we all tend to remember because of the whole “candy cane” bit. Overall, you don’t see too much of the genre today, but we get glimpses here and there, like in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof.

All I’d like to see is a return to form. Hell, if we can get overloaded with zombie flicks, then a few good car movies shouldn’t be that hard. And for all you folks screaming at your screen about the Fast & the Furious franchise, no, those are heist films, not road films. But yes, R.I.P. Paul Walker.

Looking for cool flicks to check out in the local film community? Upcoming events include three screenings of the documentary Survival of the Film Freaks beginning on March 27 at VisArt Video; a one-time screening of The Field Guide to Evil by the Back Alley Film Series at C3 Lab on March 28; and a week-long screening of the sci-fi thriller The Wind at VisArt beginning on April 5. 

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