Two-Lane Blacktop

cast: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, and Harry Dean Stanton

director: Monte Hellman

103 minutes (R) 1971 widescreen 2.35:1
Anchor Bay/Universal DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Jeff Young

“If I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m gonna go into orbit.” – Warren Oates

Two-lane Blacktop is simply the greatest road movie ever made. Its nameless protagonists inhabit a shadow land between the 1960s and the 1980s, linking the transcendental era of dropout hippies, with the me-first decade of materialistic yuppies.

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It looks like a low-budget independent production but it’s actually a studio film. Problems with copyrights for music used on the soundtrack (including stuff by The Doors, and Kris Kristofferson) kept the film in video limbo for many years, and the pan-and-scan TV screenings always failed to do it justice.
It started with a screenplay by cult novelist Rudy Wurlitzer (“I’m attracted to a kind of phenomenology of movement”), who went on to write the scripts for Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid and, later, Alex Cox’s uniquely bizarre Walker. Unlikely as it may seem now, Gary Kurtz (American GraffitiStar WarsDark Crystal, and Slipstream) served as associate producer. The producer was Michael S. Laughlin, who went on to direct Strange Invaders. Director Monte Hellman made several pictures with this film’s only experienced actor, Warren Oates, who has appeared in such varied films as The Wild BunchRace With The Devil and Blue Thunder.
In an iconoclastic move, destined to mark the film out from others of its genre (like John Hough’s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, and Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point), none of the characters in Two-Lane Blacktop have names. Of course, what this means is open to interpretation, but it prompted one commentator to declare the film an ‘existential allegory’, and seems to have influenced director Walter Hill, who used the no-names ploy in The Driver. Singer/songwriter James Taylor, Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys), Laurie Bird and the aforementioned Mr Oates are identified only as ‘Driver’, ‘Mechanic’, ‘Girl’, and ‘GTO’. This last refers to a type of vehicle – a 1970 Pontiac – the car that Oates races against Taylor and Wilson’s customised 1955 Chevrolet. Most noteworthy of the folks encountered by the four leads – on their journey across several US states – is a brief appearance by Harry Dean Stanton playing a gay cowboy.
There’s almost no plot. And yet terse or wholly improvised dialogue, extremely naturalistic performances, and the acute realism of stopover towns and the open landscapes of location shooting (no sets were built, photography used existing light) gives this film a mesmerising documentary feel, enhancing the authenticity of its fiction to the level of honest truth. Very few films create a totally credible ‘other’ world on the screen, but this is certainly one of them. Two-Lane Blacktop‘s steady parade of stock highway hobos (Oates’ GTO will give anyone a lift along the road just so he can brag about his lifestyle) positions the central players – all seemingly dedicated to a subculture we can barely comprehend – in an unmodified human realm of transparently real people. However, in spite of the characters’ search for genuine autonomy, and the film’s sense of restless change, the dénouement to this engrossing drift towards freedom is decidedly bleak. Essentially, nobody finds whatever it is they’re looking for, least of all Laurie Bird’s mysterious hitchhiker.
DVD extras: worthy. Re-mastered transfer restores the original Technicolor quality. There’s also a theatrical trailer, scene index in 24 chapters, a fascinating commentary by the Hellman and Kurtz, some informative talent biographies, and an excellent featurette – Monte Hellman: American Auteur (14 minutes, 1997 – directed by George Hickenlooper, with music by Ry Cooder) which includes interview clips of Hellman, Roger Corman, Harry Dean Stanton and noted film critics.