Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) Poster

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A poetic description of a world without possibilities
Howard Schumann22 August 2005
Long out of circulation because of disputes over music rights, Two-Lane Blacktop, now available on DVD, is one of the most original and compelling American movies of the twentieth century. It is a road movie, a film about cars, and a search for meaning in American life that could easily be called "Zen and the Art of Drag Racing". Shot from the inside of a car, it is an authentic vision of what it is like to be driving across America at a specific historical moment. Promoted by Universal Studios in 1971 as an answer to Columbia's Easy Rider, the film was originally released to less than enthusiastic audiences but has since taken on the status of cult classic and it is richly deserved. Unlike Easy Rider, it is a film that simply observes and what it sees is pure Americana: its people, gas stations, diners, and drag strips. We feel the claustrophobia, the spaces, the speed, and the loneliness.

The film stars singers James Taylor (Fire and Rain) and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys as taciturn drag races who drive their souped-up 1955 Chevy across the country challenging locals to a drag race. The main characters are drifters. They come from nowhere and are headed east, toward a destination that is murky at best. They are people whose reality begins and ends with their machines. Everyone talks about how good life can be -- somewhere else -- in New York, Chicago, the beaches of Florida, and the coast of Mexico, somewhere up the road apiece. Warren Oates, a Monte Hellman regular, turns in a truly outstanding performance as the driver of a Pontiac GTO who challenges Taylor and Wilson to a cross-country race, the prize being the ownership of the cars. GTO is a talkative fellow who concocts tall tales about his background to impress every hitchhiker he picks up (one is a gay cowboy played by Harry Dean Stanton). He is a sad and perhaps self-destructive individual but he is human and you can reach out to him and feel his pathos.

First time actors Taylor and Wilson express little emotion and there is scant dialogue but they also seem right for their roles. Their total focus is on their car. Though the Chevy looks old and ugly, it is as powerful as any car on the road and the driver and the mechanic treat it like their own flesh and blood, constantly fine tuning to maintain its impeccable performance. They go from town to town, just trying to survive by racing. In the words of author John Banville, they "have no past, no foreseeable future, only the steady pulse of a changeless present". Along the way they pick up a cherubic young roadie (Laurie Bird) who is willing to go wherever the ride takes her. After each of the boys has sex with her in motel rooms and in the car, she becomes moody and resentful and fears that she is being used but has nowhere else to go. Though the main thrust of the plot is the race to Washington, DC, the focus seems to get lost along the way, and the film becomes more of a character study of the lack of human connection than about racing.

The film looks for the soul of America in the early 1970s and comes up empty. It was released in 1971 at a time when the hopes and dreams of the '60s counter culture had given way to the disillusion of Kent State and Altamonte, the bombing of Cambodia, and the media's cynical preemption of the Hippie movement.

The movie is about everything and nothing. Everyone is biding their time waiting for life to turn out rather than creating the possibility. Though they live for the moment there is no joy, only the gnawing reality of something missing. They are like many of us, skimming along on the surface of life, reminiscing about a goal that once seemed real but is now just out of reach. They look ahead to a blank future, while ignoring the life around them, what is in the present moment. Two-Lane Blacktop is an exceptionally beautiful film, a poetic description of a world without possibilities. It may also be the definitive statement of the anguish of the materialist paradigm that has begun to crumble and fall apart.
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More Than a B-Movie
Warning: Spoilers
Two-Lane Blacktop is not the piece of disposable drive-in fare it appears to be - it has a quality that sticks with you, a sense of sadness and disenchantment that approaches hard-scrabble poetry. Monte Hellman has created a movie that succeeds almost entirely via tone. It's not the sort of movie that connects to us in the usual ways, through melodramatic artifice or overt displays of emotion. The key to its success is that it never really connects with us at all - it remains abstract, wrapped up in its own little arcane, ritualistic world. Yet there's something familiar about this place too, the sense of disconnectedness and longing. Despite the movie's fetishistic, self-absorbed quality, there's a universality that is undeniable. We might not be that interested in the arcana of life as itinerant drag-racers, but we can relate to their need for a meaningful experience and the sadness of their ultimate failure to connect.

Hellman stages the action in such a way as to de-emphasize any normal sense of character and to point-up the relationship between the characters and their machines, which is the real theme of the movie. These people have no identity away from their cars - the two main protagonists, played by creepy singer-songwriter James Taylor and lunky Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, spend almost the entire movie talking about cars, driving or working on their jalopy (a souped-up '55 Chevy coupe for those of you keeping score). Taylor, the driver, is a crack drag-racer, his entire existence revolving around racing or setting up races or driving to the next race. The performance Taylor gives can only be described as detached, yet this druggy, cut-off quality is perfect for the character, who strikes one as the kind of fanatic who can only be really alive when he's doing the one thing he loves. He seems barely aware of the movie's female lead, a wandering hippie-chick who provides a moment or two of distraction from the road, the perpetual search for excitement, but can't tear any of the men away from their machines for long (not that she doesn't try). The movie is one big Kenneth Anger-like fetishistic male fantasy about cars, their power and speed, and the sense of identity one derives from possessing and controlling them.

This makes the movie seem like a bummer, but trust me when I say that it's not. It's an unconventional movie to be sure, but it still provides some conventional B-movie amusement along the way - primarily in the form of Warren Oates, who gives a vivid, fully-realized performance as a mid-life-crisis sufferer with a rather loose sense of the truth. This pathological liar in a banana-yellow GTO is a marvelous caricature of the classic American jerk. Oates, a brilliant sketcher of masculine bluster, creates one of his most memorable sleazy/sympathetic characters, a pitiful braggart who can't even fix his own carburetor when it springs a leak - the character's impotence being expressed in terms of automotive know-how, which is fitting given the film's gear-head ethic. Yet Hellman doesn't just laugh at Oates - he's broad-minded enough to see what the impotent nit-wit in the muscle-car has in common with his super-ethical heroes, namely this inexpressible yearning. These are not John Cassavettes heroes spraying their masculine angst all over the screen like palsy victims though. They're monosyllabic highway cave-men, half-civilized car-fetishists for whom women are inexplicable, unconquerable creatures, and for whom life is one big escape from something they can't even put into words. This non-verbal, semi-poetic quality of the characters is sometimes a little hard to swallow, but it's often funny too. It's like Kerouac if Kerouac had had a sense of humor.

In Easy Rider the motorcycles were symbolic of rebellion, the spirit of independence supposedly embodied by bikers, but there's nothing especially rebellious about the characters in Two-Lane Blacktop. Hellman's not trying to take an ideological stance like Dennis Hopper, who saw his biker-fantasy as revolutionary - his movie is less '60s than '70s, less hippie-era trip than post-'60s trance-out. It has more in common with Loving and Blume in Love than with Easy Rider, the sense of America as this great disjointed place where no one has anything to believe in except the next experience, the next empty affair or drug-party or drag-race. The car-crazies of Two-Lane Blacktop are not martyrs like the bikers in Hopper's trippy opus, they're lost souls like Nicholson's Robert Dupea from Five Easy Pieces. They're characters of a certain tragic dimension, but the tragedy is rather non-descript. There are no great flaming climaxes in Two-Lane Blacktop, nothing as trumped-up as the finale of Easy Rider, but there is this portentousness, this sense of doom hovering over the characters - and it's this sense of doom that keeps Hellman's movie from floating off into some romantic la-la land. Kerouac seemed totally committed to the idea of irresponsibility as freedom, but Hellman isn't quite so convinced. Taylor and Wilson, as Kerouacian as they are, are not blissful libertines but thoughtful sober people, and Hellman suggests some awareness on their part of what a dead-end their lives really are. As wrapped up in car-culture as the movie may be, it never quite buys into the myths of the open road. There's always this grain of doubt, and it's this lack of certainty, this touch of ambivalence, that makes Two-Lane Blacktop more than just some loud, grease-spattered B-movie highway extravaganza.
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Straighter Story
Chris Bright29 August 2003
In my view this is the best road movie ever made. Carping about the slow pace or minimal dialogue is like complaining Scorsese's movies are too violent or the Marx Brothers too zany.

Like the car the two friends drive, this is an exercise in stripping things down to their essentials in search of authenticity. Like a Ramones song or an Edward Hopper painting there is absolutely nothing here that doesn't need to be.

Warren Oates' character on the other hand is a study in inauthenticity. After visiting the US in the 80's and 90's with its malls and fast food chains (and indeed looking at the kind of product Hollywood churns out these days) it's clear that his kind won the race in the end.

I've seen this on TV and in art cinemas a couple of times and I'm glad to hear I can now get the DVD. A true American classic.
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A masterpiece from the criminally underrated Monte Hellman. One of the greatest road movies ever made.
Infofreak25 April 2003
As an admirer of Monte Hellman's superb 1960s westerns 'Ride In The Whirlwind' and 'The Shooting' I had been dying to see 'Two-Lane Blacktop' for many years as most people who have seen it regard it as Hellman's best movie, and one of the greatest road movies ever made. Impossible to find on video, and rarely (if ever) screened on TV here in Australia, I finally managed to get hold of it on DVD, and boy, does this movie REALLY live up to its reputation! I think if it had have been more easy to see over the last thirty years it would be spoken of in the same breath as 'Easy Rider'. Both movies are landmarks. Existential road movies that really capture a lost slice of Americana. Hellman, like so many other talented directors, got his first breaks from b-grade legend Roger Corman. But Hellman's unwillingness to compromise, and a lot of bad luck, sadly meant that he never crossed over into the mainstream like other Corman proteges like Coppola and Demme. Too bad, because 'The Shooting' and 'Two-Lane Blacktop' showed he had talent and originality to burn. Both movies feature the legendary character actor Warren Oates ('The Wild Bunch', 'Dillinger', 'Race With The Devil', 'Drum', 'Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia'), and Oates fans MUST see this movie as his performance is simply superb. Oates plays G.T.O. a drifter and dreamer who challenges two young revheads (played by James Taylor and The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson) to a cross country car race. The winner gets the other drivers pink slip and (possibly) the affections of "The Girl", played by the late Laurie Bird (who only made two movies after this one and who tragically suicided in her mid twenties). Taylor, Wilson and Bird all give low key, almost non-performances. None were actors before they filmed this, but their minimalistic styles suit the material wonderfully. By contrast Oates is just dynamite and dominates every scene he appears in. I'd say this, and Peckinpah's cult classic 'Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia', are his two most impressive performances. It's worth watching this movie just to see Oates, but there's a lot more going for it. It is however an acquired taste, and if you aren't a fan of 1970s movies you may find it hard going. Please persevere, it's really worth it! Also keep an eye out for Harry Dean Stanton's unforgettable cameo as a lonely hitchhiker. Stanton had previously worked with Hellman in 'Ride In The Whirlwind' alongside Jack Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell, and would go on to appear with Oates and Laurie Bird in Hellman's next movie, the controversial 'Cockfighter', another difficult one to get hold of (until now). 'Two-Lane Blactop' is one of the best movies I've ever seen, and I can't recommend it highly enough! An American classic. It's pure magic!
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Example of what makes a movie great...
wytshark28 July 1999
Problems with music rights have kept this film from being seen much since its release, which is a real shame. Recently, the Roan Group released a laserdisc version (not sure if there is a VHS or DVD version), which I rented on a total whim. It turned out to be one of those rare treasures that not only lives up to its hype--it exceeds it. Anyone who wants to know why so many of today's films are sub-par would do themselves a favor by exploring this title. The problem with movies today is that everything is so formulaic, characters (if any are present) are forced to react in completely illogical ways just so the plot can hit prefabricated beats. "Two Lane Blacktop" follows the characters and lets the plot flow from the dynamics between them. Add to that some really unique characters and what you end up with is a movie that's always coming at you from the most unexpected angles, and not one second of it feels false or forced. The writing, directing and acting are dead-on, with Warren Oates a stand-out (his performance should be studied by anyone who wants to act), and James Taylor surprisingly intense and charismatic. It should be noted that this is not an action movie, so don't go into it looking for suspense or great racing scenes. Rather, you should sit back and let this movie work its almost invisible magic on you. And don't be surprised if you're still thinking about it days later.
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A pure slice of Americana
Afracious24 December 1999
Two Lane Blacktop is one of those movies that doesn't offer a lot of narrative and its characters don't have names, but it seduces us with its images of freedom and a seemingly constant nomadic cruise through beautiful landscapes. The four prominent characters consist of three car-enthusiasts and a hitchhiker. The brilliant Warren Oates is the star of the show as 'G.T.O', the driver of a bright yellow 1970 Pontiac G.T.O, who passes a 1955 Chevy driven by 'The Driver', musician James Taylor, who is accompanied by 'The Mechanic', former Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, and a hitchhiker they pick up 'The Girl', Laurie Bird. Later at a gas station they agree to a cross country race to Washington D.C. and we follow them on their way. G.T.O picks up some weird hitchhikers, or creeps as he calls them, including a homosexual who tries it on, played by Harry Dean Stanton. He tells these creeps some very exaggerated tall tales of his life and that is one of the resounding features of the film, with the ultimate statement being the one he tells to two soldiers he picks up near the end, which turns the film around from its outlook at the beginning. Also the other theme seems to be who can win the affection of 'The Girl'?, the old guy or the two young ones? But the film is memorable because of its rarity (it has never been released on video and is still unavailable, but has just been released on DVD) and its bizarre and infamous conclusion. But it is a film that you will want to watch again and again.
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How Good Is This Film?
Darren-1225 March 2004
This is either the best film I've ever seen, or just an interesting exercise in film-making that is ultimately of little value. The problem is that I can't decide which! No film has ever given me as much trouble in terms of my deciding where to place it in my personal Top 250 list. I mean, I know it's difficult to compare the relative merits of movies from different genres (e.g. "Schindler's List" vs "Monty Python And The Holy Grail"), but this movie is so unlike almost any others that I still don't know what to make of it.

I tried listening to the DVD commentary for some help, but Monte Hellman and Gary Kurtz had obviously pre-decided that they wouldn't talk about any aspect of the "meaning" or intent of the movie, preferring to concentrate on technical aspects such as pre-production, casting, locations, logistics, acting, lighting, sound, camera-work etc. I kind of respect them for this - leaving Joe Public to use his/her own brain in order to decide what the movie is all about.

One of the people in a featurette on the DVD said that "people haven't begun to realise how good Two-Lane Blacktop is" and I think that's right - the more I think about it, the better this film becomes in my estimation.

My take on the movie is that it's basically a contrast of the two extremes of human behaviour, as characterised by the brash, noisy "GTO" played by Warren Oates and the quiet, understated-to-the-point-of-lifelessness "Driver" and "Mechanic" - their personalities perfectly mirrored in their choice of cars. Most people's personalities lie somewhere in between, but by juxtaposing the extremes it forces one to think about one's place in that spectrum. "The Girl" is mainly a plot device to create a little bit of dramatic tension, as blokes left to themselves tend to go with the status quo. But we only want a little bit of drama, because that's not really the point, and too much drama would distract from the underlying theme.

I really love the "space" in this movie: the long takes, the long silences, the wide-open scenery, the fact that nobody SAYS anything (Warren Oates talks a lot, but never SAYS much). In modern life in general, I think people talk too much - try sitting still and shutting up for 103 minutes while watching this movie.

Not that I suppose anyone is interested, but I eventually rated this at about #70 in my Top 250, but next time I watch it I may move it up to #1 or drop it out of the 250 entirely...
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Pure and unforgettable expression of the 1960s.
EThompsonUMD24 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
"Two-Lane Blacktop" [1971] is a cult road film starring James Taylor in his only film appearance, Dennis Wilson of Beach Boys fame, Warren Oates fresh from his career making appearance in Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," Harry Dean Stanton in a memorable cameo as a homosexual hitchhiker, and Laurie Bird, whose short life and career would be capped tragically by suicide in her boyfriend Art Garfunkel's apartment.

In many respects "Two-Lane Blacktop" holds up better than the much more celebrated "Easy Rider" released a year or two earlier. Whereas "Easy Rider" is seriously dated by drug glorification, psychedelic imagery, hair styles, clothing fashions, and heavy-handed anti-establishment politics, "Two Lane" ties more deeply and less topically into the American Romantic tradition begun by Walt Whitman and re-invented in the 1950s by Jack Kerouac and the Beats. As in Kerouac's "On the Road," the journey across America that structures "Two Lane" is both a quest to grasp the huge American landscape and a thrust at freedom from the restraints of modern civilization as expressed through the car culture and youthful rebellion born in the 1950s and burgeoning in the 1960s. As director Monte Hellman suggests on the Criterion DVD release, "Two Lane Blacktop," despite its official release date, is the last movie of the 1960s.

The souped up 1955 Chevy driven by Taylor and tended to by his mechanic sidekick Wilson is the film's central symbol for the Romantic notion of burning with a white hot flame. ("You can never go fast enough.") Similarly, travel on mythic Route 66 back from West to East is a reversal/renewal of the path followed in the founding of the country. Yet none of the principal characters actually make it back to Washington D. C., New York, or Florida - the three east coast locations variously mentioned as geographical goals. Their journey and ours leads into the rural, back-roads heart of the country, leaving us there and making the next step in the journey open and unknown.

In spirit and vision "Two Lane" has much in common with "Breathless," the defining work of the French New Wave. Like Godard's Bogie-inspired Michel, "Two Lane"'s main characters adopt arbitrary identities - in their case, racing hustlers and wandering free spirits. Like Michel too, they impose an arbitrary meaning on their world. While his takes the form of petty thievery and sexual adventure, theirs is a cross country race for pink slips. Yet the race is abandoned and even forgotten by film's end. Only life in the moment has any meaning; once an "end" is glimpsed, the quest is abandoned in favor of some new impulse.

The film shares much else with the French New Wave as well, especially its rejection of big budget studio formulas for structuring stories. The film was shot on location in sequence as the actors were actually making the cross country journey that the film was fictionalizing. There was a deliberate use of spontaneous and accidental event (e.g. a rainstorm that wasn't scripted). To keep the actors in the "present," only the most experienced one of them, Warren Oates, was allowed to see the script. No use was made of make-up, set design, special effects or other accoutrements of the Hollywood system. The actors were youthful and inexperienced (other than Oates) and the plot, such as it is, is riddled with deliberate aimlessness and disproportion, ending anti-climactically and with little or nothing resolved.

In most ways "Two Lane Blacktop" is really an anti-road movie and those who watch it thinking they will be rewarded by exciting car races and sexual adventure are in for a big disappointment. Ultimately the film isn't about car racing at all, but about defining one's self in an existential void. It's about living absolutely in the present, in the here and now - with the past irrelevant and the future unknown. More than anything, this extreme and unapologetic romantic bent is what makes "Two Lane Blacktop" such a pure and unforgettable expression of the 1960s.
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A superb road movie - and more than a road movie.
chaos-rampant4 August 2008
Warren Oates plays a GTO driver who, on his road East, challenges two car nuts for "pink slips". The first to get to Washington D.C. wins the other's car. The two young guys have also picked up a girl on their way, or more accurately, she just got in their car, no questions asked; who she is, where she's going, nada. She's just tagging along for the ride. All four major characters are drifters, men (and woman) with no names, and their credit titles reflect that: G.T.O., The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl. They're parts of a long tradition of genre anti-heroes, drifters and outcasts, that includes the likes of Sanjuro (Yojimbo) and The Man with No Name.

However they face the same paradox every cinematic anti-hero faces: by separating themselves from society, by refusing to sit still and conform, they're free; it's just them, the engine revving and the road. The problem is that even though they are free, they don't seem to realize it. They keep trying to define themselves through society values. As Warren Oates muses about settling down: "If I'm not grounded pretty soon, I'm gonna go into orbit". The only thing that still permits these people identity and a place in society is through their cars. If the end is a symbolic representation of this moral double-bind that pushes them into two opposite directions, only Monte Hellman knows.

The reason I'm musing about characters in a car movie however is simple. Two-Lane Blacktop is not just about the race between a 1955 Chevy and a 1970 Pontiac. And that's probably why the movie meanders seemingly aimlessly in places, as if in a trance. It's not a racing movie. It doesn't try to be a tight, gripping thriller. In that light, the sometimes slow pacing becomes part of what defines the movie. It feels more like some sort of existential journey through 70's America. But the beauty (and Hellman's talent) is that he refuses the easy way out of obvious allegories (the kind of which Jarmusch used in Dead Man). Things are pretty much open and left for interpretation. But as the two cars cross country on their way to Washington D.C., Hellman captures the zeitgeist of the times in a unique way. I don't know how this slice of Americana looks in the eyes of Americans, but for a European like me, it paints the country in the same mythic colours Sergio Leone's movies did. The difference being this is not a reconstruction of a time and era seen through the eyes of a fascinated European director, but real locations and people.

In any way, Two-Lane Blacktop is closer to Vanishing Point than Gone in 60 Seconds. A superb road movie on all counts and more than a road movie.
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Great Movie
Chaarles12 March 2011
A beautifully made, charismatic and intelligent film which is definitely worth catching more than once. It is somewhat difficult; a little baffling here and there; deceptively easygoing. A film all about what is occurring beneath the surface; as much about self-deception as the quest to be free. Perhaps, I wonder, a movie about struggling with a sense of meaninglessness, emptiness or failure; certainly I found it troubling and sad. All in all, I feel, a phenomenal piece of movie-making which, in my opinion, stands out from the all-too-familiar formulaic conveniences we are often force-fed by the industry. For me, this film is a brilliantly conceived, excellently executed and thought-provoking piece of art.
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