Drag-racing film Two-Lane Blacktop, which stalled at the 1971 box office but managed to roll into The Criterion Collection in its half-century afterlife, is filled with contradictions. A languid film about car racing? Characters that reveal little about themselves during an insightful exploration of generational differences? A female lead credited simply as “the Girl” that highlights uncomfortable truths about gender norms in the latter days of the counterculture? A script that pulls all this off without seeming like it’s trying?
Let’s start with the race, which starts, appropriately, at a gas station.
“I don’t like being crowded by a couple of punk road hogs clear across two states,” says the middle-aged man driving the GTO (Warren Oates).
“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you,” retorts the 20-something man driving the Chevy 150 (played by folk musician James Taylor in his only fictional film role). “Of course, there’s lots of cars on the road like yours.”
The gauntlet is thrown. The two men, a few decades apart in age and style, find themselves on the verge of competition. The Pontiac GTO is a newer, more stylish car driven by a man – credited only as “GTO” – who is financially stable enough to afford it. The driver – credited as the Driver – of the stripped-down Chevy 150 has made a career hustling guys who believe a top-of-the-line model will smoke his unassuming ride. DC is the destination; the first man (and car) there wins.
The inability to back down from a challenge, or an argument – a signpost of American masculinity – becomes the heart of the joke driving Two-Lane Blacktop clear across the country. Just like the infamous Chickie Run in Nicholas Ray‘s Rebel Without a Cause, driving off a cliff is preferable to allowing yourself to show weakness.
Route 66 is the arena, but this race’s true stakes aren’t immediately clear beyond garden-variety macho posturing. Looking on are the Mechanic (played by Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boy drummer) and the Girl (Laurie Bird). The latter subtly orchestrated the whole encounter by taunting the Driver with one of her many zingers when the GTO zoomed by. “Don’t you wanna race him?” she asks. “Isn’t that what you guys do?”
Universal Pictures was likely seeking to emulate Dennis Hopper‘s 1969 hit Easy Rider when it decided to finance the ambitious and unconventional project. The comparisons make sense at face value. Keep the zeitgeist-seeking but replace the motorcycles with cars and the hip actors Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper with hip musicians. In a producer’s mind, you’ve got Two-Lane Blacktop. Youth is fleeting, and each respective generation’s trends need to be monetized quickly if they are going to be monetized at all.
It did not work out. Two-Lane Blacktop was a lemon at the box office. It must have been a nightmare to market. Fans of gripping acting were likely disappointed that only one of the actors – Warren Oates, a survivor of the mid-century Westerns craze – delivered anything remotely close to a professional performance. The other characters are played by first-time actors who barely emoted.
The scrappiness of the acting, however, complements that of the road life. The plot is seemingly thin to the point of nonexistent: like Waiting for Godot on the highway. Grounded in an oddball logic, the script by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry preempts the ’90s slacker genre and ’00s mumblecore by a few decades. Richard Linklater, one of the luminaries of the former, is a big fan of the film. But as with Dewey Nick’s Slackers, the bard of Austin, Texas’ debut, you will likely think, “huh?” repeatedly on the first watch.
“It’s not about the destination,” the saying goes, “it’s about the journey.” When Two-Lane Blacktop‘s ambling plot finally comes to the juncture, every subsequent line will have you bursting into laughter and/or questioning what you are seeking to find on your upcoming road trip. Two-Lane Blacktop satirizes the road trip genre while remaining fully immersed – physically and spiritually – in its conventions. It’s a time capsule of a bygone America.
The backdrop is full of one-stoplight towns along Route 66. Characters’ accents shift along the way, with regional differences more pronounced before the internet (and Interstate highways) collapsed time and space. Spectacular footage of ’70s racetracks and edge-of-town drag races – where hundreds of wanna-be Richard Pettys descended every weekend to satisfy their need for speed – weaves into the freewheeling storyline.
The film even captures the era when hitchhiking was a viable way to get around. The Girl splits off from a hippie van and jumps in the back of the Chevy 150. “You guys aren’t the Zodiac Killers or anything like that, are you?” the Girl says to the Driver and the Mechanic. They aren’t. Unlike the beguiling Arnold Friend trying to lure protagonist Connie into his car in Joyce Carol Oates’ classic short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been“, the Driver – along with the other men in the film – are more hapless than devious. Their efforts to seduce the Girl tend to fall flat.
“You hear the cicadas?” the Driver asks the Girl as they sit on a fence at a gas station. He rambles on about the life of the swarming pest – crawling out of the earth every seven years to reproduce. That’s his attempt to convince her that he is the ‘sensitive type’.
She’s not having it. “You bore me,” she responds nonchalantly.
Her goal is simply to make it elsewhere in the country, with her reasons or past never explained. If she is going to sleep with someone along the way, it is going to be on her terms. This is a big departure from the film’s predecessors. “Easy Rider is an embarrassing commentary on the hip male’s contempt for women,” the late, great cultural critic Ellen Willis said. “The women who enter their domain are strictly two-dimensional characters.”
This norm is turned on its head in Two-Lane Blacktop, giving autonomy to the Girl while mocking the “hip males” that view her as nothing more than something pretty on the side. The film doesn’t see these guys as all that different from the ‘squares’ that they are rebelling against (the biggest insult of them all).
“After D.C. we’ll go on down to Florida,” the Driver says to the Girl. “They’ve got some nice beaches down there.” The GTO also regales the Girl with fantastical accounts of what life could be like if she only follows him through his midlife crisis, with Florida also being the destination. Anyone who has spent actual time in the state (and isn’t just trying to sell you land there) could tell you that Florida ain’t no Eden, but that doesn’t deter both of the mens’ flights of fancy of how good they could have it if she only remains in his passenger seat – and not the other guy’s.
In a running gag, the GTO, always wearing a cashmere sweater and driving gloves, subjects anyone who gets in his car to a tall tale about the circumstances that led to his time on the road. A few can’t take it, preferring to wait on the side of the highway until someone less contemptible comes along to give them a lift. GTO keeps making it up as he goes, but you can tell how badly he wants those yarns to be true. In an act of misplaced paternal sincerity, the GTO eventually tells the truth to the Driver.
“Everything fell apart on me. My job, my family… everything.” He is hitting the road less out of a desire for freedom, but out of a need to escape the wreckage of his life. His destination is unclear.
“I don’t want to hear about it,” the Driver says.
“What do you mean, you don’t want to hear about it?”
“It’s not my problem.” He surely has problems of his own, problems big enough that make life in a single place impossible. Off he goes, searching for a new fool to hustle. Luck will eventually desert him, on the road or elsewhere as it always does to someone living from wager to wager.
“You can’t stay with the same high forever,” the GTO says to yet another hitchhiker, pretending his life is on the up-and-up and that just ahead is the solution to all his problems. It would serve the Driver well to heed this fatherly advice. Not that he will listen. Fed up with the masculine power tripping, the Girl eventually departs on the back of a motorcycle down the Blue Ridge Parkway. A trophy she is not.
The men shrug and lose interest, dejectedly heading their separate ways. The race never reaches the checkered flag. Just like that, it’s over. Director Monte Hellman, who died this year, was never trusted again with a major production. He, at least, got to see Two-Lane Blacktop’s reputation rise. So have James Taylor, who has aged gracefully into an elder statesman of his generation, and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, with several idiosyncratic scripts and novels to his name. Laurie Bird and Dennis Wilson passed away too young to see Two-Lane Blacktop grow in stature into arguably one of the best American road films of all time. Move over Badlands and Thelma and Louise.
In the 50 years since the film’s release, cars have only become more firmly entrenched in American life. A 2013 Census study showed that 86 percent of workers in the United States drive to their job, with the vast majority doing so alone. The average commute time in 2019: almost half an hour each way. While the road movie and the road reality were distant even in 1971 (same goes for #vanlife, the ideological heir of road movie escapism, as recent events have shown), nothing kills romanticism like doing it day after day in pursuit of a paycheck. For some aging boomers, life on the road is less a conscious decision than an obligation brought by the impossibility of a stable retirement in the United States.
Two-Lane Blacktop roars with the hopes of an era lost when two shiftless gearheads, a fabulist huckster and an apathetic hippie, could conceivably believe that a little time on the highway would solve all their problems. It laughs at them, too, but does so with recognition of a shared desire for escape, freedom, and adventure. Maybe that’s why the film has not slowed down in the half-century since its release.
Addendum: While the reviewer (hello!) was writing this piece, he himself got into a serious car accident on the least romantic of roads, the New Jersey Turnpike. The following few weeks were lost in a concussion daze. During that time, his mind kept returning to a scene in Two-Lane Blacktop when a farmer looks onto a flipped car and the dead man in the driver’s seat and says:
“He was trying to pass this other car, you see. He come around that curve there on the wrong side of the road. Nothin’ I could do. He just kept comin’ at me, the damn fool.”
A road movie that does not elide the dangers of the road with devil-may-care allure? Now that’s special.
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