Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Two-Lane Blacktop first published by Little White Lies

“Just passin’ through,” is how they describe themselves, their existence, and their general trajectory. 

In a customised 1955 Chevrolet as stripped-down, well-tooled and finely tuned as Monte Hellman’s film, two taciturn, plain-dressed, anonymous young men – dubbed The Driver and The Mechanic in the closing credits, and played by musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in their first (and last) acting roles – live to drive. They drift and grift from state to state, from street rally to drag race, engaging similar young men in contests of speed for only enough cash to maintain their vehicle and themselves on the road. Their talk is all jets, rods and valves, and their attitude is one of laid-back perfectionism (indeed, they seem always to win) – but their goal is less defined. 

At an Arizona food stop, they cross paths with another drifter, The Girl (Laurie Bird, also in her first on-screen role), who has been pan-handling and hitch-hiking her way cross-country – and whose only evident imperatives are to keep moving (her previous ride, now ditched, “kept getting stoned and pulling off the side of the road”) and to get a bit of affection on the way. In the latter regard she must compete with the boys’ Chevy, which they seem almost to regard as a living woman (“she doesn’t seem to be breathing right,” observes the Mechanic tellingly) – something that The Girl is quick to pick up on. “I don’t see anyone paying attention to my rear end,” she complains when the boys discuss some work that their car requires on its back section. Still, The Girl and The Mechanic do have a dalliance at a hotel, while The Driver sits, excluded, outside the room’s door – and for the first time we see how fragile is the dynamic between these two men.

Meanwhile, a fourth player enters this highly mobile yet strangely inert drama. Identified in the credits only by his car, ‘GTO’ (played by Hellman regular Warren Oates) appears to be the polar opposite of the younger boys: an older, more flamboyant man who drives a bright orange stock 1970 Pontiac, and just loves to talk (even after his passengers have fallen asleep) – although, chameleon-like, he changes his stories as often as his clothes and his cassette tapes. What GTO does have in common with the Driver and the Mechanic is a refusal to stop, although only he, behind the big grin and braggadocio, seems introspective enough to see the tragedy in all this restlessness. “You can’t stay on the same high forever,” he will declare (twice) as he tears up Route 66, later adding more sadly, “If I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m gonna go off into orbit.” 

GTO keeps overtaking the Driver and the Mechanic on the road, and yet is somehow always behind them. After several challenges and some aggressive homosocial banter (“I could suck you right up my tailpipe”, is one of GTO’s more memorably sexualised boasts), he and the boys agree on a long-distance dash to Washington, D.C., with the pink slips for their cars as the nominal prize – but somewhere along the way, as this strange quartet swaps food, passengers and even vehicles, and runs additional races on the side for petty cash, it becomes clear that they are all fellow travelers and yet equally alone, running on empty down a road to nowhere.     

It is hardly a coincidence that Hellman’s previous two films, Ride In The Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1966), were both existential oaters, and that Rudy Wurlitzer, the novelist who wrote Two-Lane Blacktop, would go on to pen Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973) – for Two-Lane Blacktop is itself a kind of countercultural western, as its protagonists ride east, taking on all-comers in ritualised duels and just doing what they have to do. Still, the backdrop to this film, beautifully shot by Jack Deerson and an uncredited Gregory Sandor, is not the frontierlands and lawless territories of the nineteenth century, but rather the America of the early 1970s, the time of the Zodiac killer (briefly mentioned in the dialogue) and Vietnam (the boys are definitely of draft age, and GTO’s last hitchhikers are a group of young soldiers), when Sixties idealism was speeding to the end of the road – and the most obvious influences on Two-Lane Blacktop are both Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On The Road, and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). 

Indeed, Universal granted Hellman $1 million and final cut in the hope that his film would repeat the success of Hopper’s – but Hellman delivered something altogether more subtle and intangible, whose very minimalism, though making it something of a commercial failure in its own time, has also granted it the kind of resonance and staying power that Easy Rider arguably lacks. In all their blankness, Hellman’s characters present a delicate kind of melancholy onto which any generation can readily project its own sense of aching emptiness – and newcomers Taylor, Wilson and Bird, bringing a Bressonian naturalism to their parts, are never less than believable as the feckless avatars of lost youth, while the more experienced Oates offers up a desperate brand of sadness (with a smile). 

Where Hopper’s antiheroes Wyatt and Billy were doomed to go out in a cynical (and entirely involuntary) blaze of glory, it is more difficult to discern what fate has in store for the likes of The Driver and The Mechanic. Perhaps they will lose one of their increasingly high-stake races, and their aimless odyssey, suddenly made automobile-free, will be brought to a shuddering halt. Perhaps they will end up as corpses mangled in the debris of an on-road collision, like the horrific car wreck that they pass en route to D.C.. Or perhaps their future will look something like GTO’s present – a manic trip into loneliness and longing that can never be satisfied or indeed end. 

Yet Hellman leaves these characters in a kind of limbo. In the film’s final sequence, as the Driver starts yet another race with preternatural calm, the image goes into slomo, the soundtrack turns to silence, and the celluloid itself bubbles and burns, consuming everything to its vanishing point. It remains unclear whether this is meant to figure the Driver’s demise in an explosive conflagration, or rather to indicate the very inability of cinema to capture and contain his sublime transience – but even if the Driver and co. are just passin’ through, they encapsulate a whole generation lost in the rootless, directionless Seventies, scorching the viewer’s retina with their quest for nothing.    

© Anton Bitel