Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Full disclosure: I’m not sure a single review can explain the sensory experience that is Two-Lane Blacktop. What is supposed to be a simple road movie turns into a poetic art piece set to film that transcends its initial set-up to seek deeper and more meaningful questions about wayward individuals and the purpose of existence in a time of disillusionment and self-discovery.

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Two-Lane Blacktop was released in 1971, directed and edited by Monte Hellman, produced by Michael S. Laughlin of Universal Pictures, with a screenplay by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry (based on a story by Will Corry). The film stars James Taylor as The Driver, Dennis Wilson as The Mechanic, Warren Oates as GTO, and Laurie Bird as The Girl; this is the only film Taylor and Wilson ever acted in.

Now, where to go from here?

Male obsession is a major theme that runs through the film, with The Driver and The Mechanic being the owners of a 1955 Chevrolet which they race amongst other cars as a way of getting money (or “bread” as they call it). These two seem to enjoy racing, and they display their automobile’s power through these races; these races end up being an extension of their love for their vehicle, almost as a way of proving or expressing their passion by way of demonstration and action. Of course, these two also seem to enjoy driving around the country almost as much as they enjoy racing; their aimless trips show how they themselves are a bit aimless, wandering around and essentially being, as one character points out, nomads. However, they seem unaware and apathetic in this regard, driving around, racing, and doing what they want because they can, because they want to, because it’s what they love to do; in essence, this is what they live for. This is where the existential themes kick in. The Driver and The Mechanic know what they like to do, so they do it, never allowing anyone or any peoples to influence their life decisions.

The acting of James Taylor and Dennis Wilson is surprisingly believable for the type of nameless characters they play. The Driver doesn’t show much emotion, appearing very concentrated, focused, and neutral in his facial expressions. What The Driver becomes is an enigma, someone who clearly loves what he does but never explains why. This goes just as equally for The Mechanic, a man who never seems to drive the ’55 Chevy, but, as his name implies, deals with its engine and overall body. The Mechanic is also livelier than The Driver, speaking and interacting with others more often. Both The Driver and The Mechanic represent two types of car lovers: the ones that love the feel and need for speed by way of driving, and the ones who love to take care of the cars they own, never truly needing to take them out for a spin. It’s also important to note that The Driver and The Mechanic never seem to interact with one another as friends; instead, they both seem to act as associates, partners who share the same obsession and interests, but aside from that, have nothing else to talk about. By way of giving our protagonists no names and only characteristics we are presented with a representation of the type of people who live the existence of someone who not only deals with automobiles as an obsession and way of life but is free to do what they want simply because they choose to do what they want.

The character only known as GTO seems to represent the person who doesn’t know much about a specific type of sub-culture but pretends to be a part of it anyway – In other words, a phony.

GTO goes about the film in a 1970 Pontiac, an automobile that The Driver himself says is quite common amongst drivers (we see the vehicle twice before being formally introduced to GTO himself). GTO, of course, thinks his vehicle is good enough to challenge the ’55 Chevy, and decides to suggest a race against The Driver and Mechanic. With the reward being the two vehicle’s pink slips, they set off to Washington D.C., making it a part of their on-going road trips across the United States of America. GTO becomes the victim of picking up every hitchhiker he comes across, which usually doesn’t go well for him; why he picks up every hitchhiker he comes across is up to infinite debate. Through these pick-ups, however, we are able to see that GTO is just a great big phony: When given the chance to speak, GTO tells his passengers how he came into possession of the car he’s driving, what he used to do, and where he plans to go – not one of these tales is ever the same as the last. GTO seems like the kind of person who is either insecure of himself or in need of acceptance; him wanting to prove how cool and fast his GTO Pontiac is could easily be an example of the latter “acceptance” theory. The fact that he is middle aged only supports the idea that GTO represents a type of person who wants to stay hip, who wants to impress people, but who ultimately does not truly understand the Route 66 sub-culture or even the car he drives (he himself flat out admits to one of his first passengers that he doesn’t know every technical aspect of his vehicle).

Then there’s The Girl, the only female that joins The Driver, The Mechanic, and GTO on their road trip. She seems to represent a free spirited, nomadic California girl, one who voluntarily invites herself into the ’55 Chevy and voluntarily rides with GTO whenever she decides upon the action. If anything is clear it’s that The Girl has more freedom and choice than any of the male characters, doing what she wants when she wants, only being limited when in the passenger seat of either the Chevy or the Pontiac. She also brings on the affections of all three of the main male characters in different ways: The Mechanic does it and gets it done efficiently, The Driver does it in the more traditional slow-paced way, and GTO just talks about how crazy he is about her and how they should drive down to Mexico, or Florida, or New York. The Girl is never put into the background, always having a presence amongst the males even if it’s just so they have someone else to talk to. While she may not represent a specific type of person, her broader representation does allow for her character to be the most free and driven by choice, as shown in the scenes where she sometimes abandons the males and does her own thing.

The cinematography and direction in Two-Lane Blacktop is top quality excellence, taking advantage of its widescreen angles to show us everything that surrounds the characters, be it people, plains, establishments, or other vehicles. Even the close-ups are done with elegance, at no time ever making it obnoxious by way of only showing the face, but instead showing us everything that surrounds the characters (sunlight, the car interior, a bar or restaurant). The tracking of the automobiles is also excellent, always seeing where they are and where they’re going, even when they move rapidly or unexpectedly. Something that is also worthy to note is the lack of music: Two-Lane Blacktop has no musical score, only relying on a few licensed tunes that prop up now and again. This lack of film score only helps the film achieve its poetic grace by way of focusing only on what is happening on screen via the visuals and the sounds. Because of the lack of soundtrack, the ambient noise that occurs is very important to the film, allowing us to hear the nuances of an automobile’s engine and the chatter of people at a bar or restaurant.

If there is anything to take from Two-Lane Blacktop it’s this: You can never go fast enough.

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1 comment
  1. Nice write-up. I watched this last week and very much admired that whole basic sort of existential candidness, although I didn’t think too much of it at the time. I guess it’s been growing on me since and a re-watch is in order.

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