There was a wonderful moment in cinema history in the late 60s and early 70s with the New American Cinema movement. We got our very own Nouvelle Vague with films like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Badlands," and this movement gave rise to auteurs like Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Terrence Malick. Unlike films of the 40s and 50s which were silly melodramas or splashy unrealistic Hollywood musicals, these films explored inner landscapes often using the American backdrop as a metaphor for the kind of alienation and questioning that naturally surfaced during and after after the Vietnam War and failure of the 1960s counter-culture to bring about meaningful change. A hallmark of these films is the open-ended nature of the stories: narratives were not usually wrapped up neatly. In fact, most films ended in a way that provoked deeper scrutiny and interpretation, something that a film simply aiming to "entertain" does not and cannot do.
So in 1971, director Monte Hellman released "Two-Lane Blacktop," a film that clearly falls within these fuzzy boundaries. With elements of a road movie, it's akin to such classics as Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider" and Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point," and displays the same kind of fascination with the American landscape, and by extension, the American "experience" which reflected the hollowness of the time and the psychological and spiritual searching that young people were doing.
Despite the fact that the film stars musicians James Taylor as The Driver and Dennis Wilson (of The Beach Boys) as The Mechanic, both high-profile celebrity music stars, the film does not feature music by either one of them. There are precious few songs used on the soundtrack (an official soundtrack has never been released): "Moonlight Drive" by The Doors, "Maybelline" by Chuck Berry, "Stealin'" by Arlo Guthrie, "Hit The Road Jack" by Percy Mayfield, and the original version of "Me and Bobby McGee" by the song's writer Kris Kristofferson. This low-key mix offers a glimpse of Americana at the time with an interesting blend of rock, R&B, and folk.
We follow The Driver and The Mechanic, (Taylor, and especially Wilson were sexy as hell when they were this young) from the Southern California racing subculture (which grew alongside the surfing subculture) across the United States. Along the way they pick up a young girl hitchhiking (it is more accurate to say that she is a stowaway), and fall into a competitive race with another driver identified only by the name GTO (after the car he drives) played by Warren Oates. Driver and Mechanic are single-minded, focused on their racer, a grey-primered 1955 Chevy 150. They communicate very little and when they do, it is about the car. The sudden presence of Laurie Bird as The Girl rocks their relationship only briefly and they end up mostly ignoring her. Once they meet GTO on the road in New Mexico and decide to race across the country to Washington D.C. for the prize of "pinks" (pink slips, meaning that the winner will own both vehicles), the strangest race ever filmed begins. In near silence, they all drive Route 66 eastward (the only way to get across the country in the pre-Interstate Highway era), stopping along the way for peculiarly prolonged interludes, and we end up with a cavernous, empty sensation, and a film with sparse dialogue and an existential feeling. Just like "Zabriskie Point," the empty, cavernous, desolate landscape is a metaphor for the state of mind most young people were feeling then.
Taylor, Wilson, and Bird do a great job with so little dialogue. Hellman only gave his actors the pages of the script needed for that days' scenes, and the actors were uncomfortable with that approach. As an actor, I can identify with that, but I must confess that, as a technique, the discomfort Hellman might have created only adds to the texture of the film. But the one who stands out is Warren Oates as the sort of simple minded GTO who is on the run from his own sad life; he played the character with such a light, deft hand that his performance might pass by unnoticed. But please do notice.
Recommend? Yes. This is not an action film, and despite the fact that it revolves around a car and a race, it is not really a "car" or "racing" film either. It is a distilled experience of dissatisfaction and restlessness from that period, as evidenced by the enigmatic ending which seems to intimate that there is no "ending." It's worth seeing for a sort of time capsule glimpse into the zeitgeist of the late 60s and early 70s as well as for the performances (and to see Dennis Wilson's gorgeous hair and sideburns *sigh*).
The film was recently re-released by Criterion.