Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) is among the greatest, most audacious, most truly individual studio-backed movies that could probably only have been made in the 1970s, one that feels like myth from a distance but when you’re actually in it, behind the wheel of it, is really a string of loving detail with no apparent concessions to grand design. It’s about a deal made at some seldom-patronized country service station, a cross-country race for pink slips, with stops only for cheeseburgers, gas and small repairs. One car is a slick yellow GTO, the other a hulking old Chevy, a car that’s all performance, no glamour—it doesn’t even have a heater since a heater might slow it down—and Hellman’s backseat camera shakes with the Chevy’s surges in speed. The movie’s universe is soaked in restlessness, but not the romantic sort. The purity absorbs you without explaining a thing.
The characters have no names. The Chevy has a Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) and a Driver (James Taylor), a Beach Boy and a famous singer-songwriter, though neither talk much, much less sing—they can’t afford to waste the energy. Even Taylor’s leanness seems calibrated for speed. So these stoic, long-haired hustlers, who are they? Certainly not the counterculture emblems of Easy Rider (1969). Are they young men of their generation or of something much deeper in the American mindset, or maybe that of the late 19th century European novel? The movie, scripted by Rudy Wurlitzer, opts to keep their mystery intact, while leaving much room for the actors’ low-key charisma to unfurl.
They’re joined by a girl (Laurie Bird, who was pretty mysterious even in real life), a tousled tomboy nymphet vagabond. Her entrance is spied entirely through the window and doorway of a diner; she transfers her body and belongings from one vehicle to another—the Chevy. Driver and Mechanic get in the car as she nests in the back. They drive off without so much as a word, as though her appearance in their car was not planned per se but a perfectly ordinary occurrence. She’s the first to speak. She just wants to make sure they’re not the Zodiac killer.
Driver and Mechanic, the two-headed lone wolf, are most often seen from the front or behind, while the pilot of the GTO (Warren Oates) is most often seen from the side, the most appropriate point-of-view for a compulsive conversationalist. Few actors in history can be so endearing while being so baldly ingratiating, and Two-Lane Blacktop supplied us with one of Oates’ finest performances. Oates’ affectations are lovingly honed: the stiff collar and cashmere V-necks, the driving gloves with the knuckle-holes, the scarf or ascot or whatever that is round his neck, the tape collection perfectly cued-up so that he can play, say, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ just as a pretty girl slides into his passenger seat. He claims he’s scouting locations for a “down-home movie on fast cars,” which is doubtlessly total bullshit. He tells the girl he wants to take her away, says they can go to Miami or Montreal or Mexico—he’s a one-man Wild Bunch. (That Oates shares a scene with Harry Dean Stanton, the other greatest character actor of the 1970s, should constitute some special section of cinephile heaven, though the truth is that theirs isn’t one of the film’s best bits, with Stanton playing a hitchhiker who gets weepy when Oates won’t accept his unsolicited affections. “I got no time for sidetracks,” he explains apologetically.)
The racing opponents are also companions, helping each other out along the way, taunting each other playfully, exchanging hard-boiled eggs and hooch or drugs as peace offerings. Like the movie itself, which was shot in sequence in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina, they’re in for the long haul—there is nothing else. So it’s no surprise that it all ends with the movie itself seemingly burning up on-screen. Everything is obliterated in the slipstream.