Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you. Course there’s lots of cars on the road like yours. They all get to look the same. They perform about the same.”

‘Two-Lane Blacktop’, directed by Monte Hellman in 1971, is an American road movie in which two cars race from Arizona to East Tennessee. It’s a raw, no-frills movie in which the landscapes of America and the cars themselves are the focus. Whilst the performances take second stage to their vehicles, the four main (and nameless) characters: the Driver, played by James Taylor, the Mechanic, played by Dennis Wilson, GTO, played by Warren Oates and the Girl, played by Laurie Bird, are all distinct and all contribute towards a general theme of anti-establishment discontent. Oates in particular plays a character who seems to morph into whoever his hitchhiking companions want him to be, whilst his competitors seem obsessed and narrow-mindedly focused on the performance of their car. The Girl drifts between them just as they drift across the country, until their complete lack of anima drives her away. It’s a strange race – the occupants of the two cars cross paths, share meals and even help one another but always with a competitive tension between them that feels greater than the race itself. This is heightened by the casting, Taylor and Wilson were musicians, famous as part of the 1960s hippie subculture, whilst Oates was an older actor, more famous for westerns. It’s tempting to see these differences on screen as a generational conflict. The thing that stands out though are the cars and the way the director fetishizes the mechanics. The last shot of the film show one of the cars in a drag race, the power of the vehicle so great that, in a similar way to Bergman’s presentation of psychological crisis in ‘Persona’, it warps and destroys the very fabric of the film.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s like ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ but without jokes, but all the same it’s a kinetic and exciting movie.

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