My first experience of a Monte Hellman film was his comeback directorial effort after over two decades in self-exile, Road to Nowhere. It didn’t work for me at all. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about and found it to be a tedious, monotonous mere shadow of far superior efforts like Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Suffice to say that I never took the time to revisit any of his earlier, often much-lauded ‘classics’ for fear that I would be just as disappointed, in spite of the fact that a couple of them starred one of my favourite actors of all time, Warren Oates (who did my favourite Peckinpah movie – and arguably one of my favourite movies of all time – Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). So it was with trepidation that I took up his 1971 film Two-Lane Blacktop, regarded as his best work.
The story follows a pair of racers – The Driver and The Mechanic – who have built up a heavily-modified 1955 Chevy and are driving across the country looking for worthy adversaries to race. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker – The Girl – who is perpetually disappointed with their obsession with cars and not her, and also encounter another fellow ‘traveller’, the enigmatic “GTO”, who challenges them to a cross-country race to New York in his 1970 Pontiac GTO. The prize: each other’s cars.
It’s a simple plot but, then again, Hellman is renowned for his minimalist movies; his slow-burning pace and no-frills editing often leave you wondering whether he has anything to say at all. Indeed hardly a word is said at all for good few minutes of Two-Lane Blacktop, as we meet two of the four main characters, and are introduced to what they do: drive their car across country and race people. That they are not even named, and barely speak a word, could be seen as provocatively frustrating, but, for some reason, back in the early 70s, it actually works.
Indeed it’s probably better that the two have little to say across the course of the movie: they’re played by non-actors James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (the Beach Boys’ drummer) who are better known for their music than this, their only cinematic performance, and who are far more effective in the near-dialogue-less sequences of this movie than during any of the scenes that actually require them to ‘act’. As a nameless driver and mechanic, roaming the empty highway in search of challenges, these two are actually very convincing in their roles.
Making them a trio is fellow non-actor, Laurie Bird, a young girl who died at just 25, 7 years after she did this, one of just three films that she featured in during her entire career. Again, she is quite effective in a role which demands her to be the instigator of dialogue even if nobody is even listening, let alone responding. She’s a fellow wandering soul, only she is obviously looking for somebody to latch on to, but never appears to be happy with the people she selects and frequently finds herself just drifting to somebody else instead. Indeed she only appears to be along for the ride because she has nobody better to ride with and you get the feeling that, as soon as she gets bored, or if she finds somebody better, then she’ll be gone without even a goodbye.
It seems somewhat ironic that Bird proved to be girl that Hellman would become fascinated with for some years, arguably the rest of his life, despite the fact that she was his muse/girlfriend for a relatively short period of time and soon flitted to the next interesting thing before committing suicide at such a terribly young age. Hellman would continue to be obsessed with her for quite some time and, although it’s difficult to put things into place with retrospective, I was distinctly aware of the fact that his 2010 film Road to Nowhere, a film about the relationship between a director and his non-actor-turned-star, was actually about his own relationship with Bird.
With that Sandra Locke (Eastwood’s muse) feel to her, both in looks and in acting style, I can see how Bird could have actually gone on to better things, but clearly that was not in the cards. It’s a shame, and arguably a part of whatever sadness she had in herself remains raw and uncensored within this performance here.
Opposite this trio of non-actors we had veteran actor Warren Oates, whose work has gone uncelebrated for far too long. Just about the only Blu-ray releases with him in them are The Wild Bunch and The Return of the Magnificent Seven, as well as two of his last movies, the Bill Murray comedy Stripes and the attack helicopter thriller Blue Thunder, with Roy Scheider, but there’s a wealth of movies to be found in between, including several works with both Peckinpah and Hellman directing him.
Oates is easily the clear actor out of the group, although his contribution never feels jarring, merely standout in terms of excellence. In fact, with 20:20 hindsight, I’m surprised there wasn’t something of an uproar that he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. His character of ‘GTO’ is the most complex character on offer (some would argue the only character, as the other people in this piece are mere shades of fully-rounded characters, whereas GTO has much more substance to him) and is at once frustrating, aggressive, stubborn, helpful, innovative, charming, warm and utterly tragic.
GTO’s introduction is a subtle precursor to Heath Ledger’s iconic characterisation of The Joker in The Dark Knight: he recounts tales of what brought him to where he is at now. The tales start off with him being wounded in Korea, then testing fighter planes for a living, then racing cars to maintain a ‘high’. Soon we hear variations on this, as he tells people that he is test driving cars for a living, and, eventually, that he is racing cars for a living. His tales are always to complete strangers – the hitchhikers that he picks up along the way (including Harry Dean Stanton as a homosexual passenger with wandering hands) – and so he never has to tell the same story twice. Perhaps the most telling moment comes where he recounts how his other car is a souped-up Chevy and how he won the Pontiac GTO in a race, a tragic line which highlights how demoralised he has become by life, and by recent events.
Two-Lane Blacktop is packed to the brim with metaphors and analogies. Most obviously the characters and their respective cars are symbols of the way of life back in the late Sixties / early Seventies: the disillusionment with Vietnam, the freedom and ‘hippie’ peace movement as exemplified by the inwardly-focussed Chevy runners, butting up against the more Right Wing consumer-culture-driven GTO, who is as interested in looks as he is in performance, but doesn’t really know what’s truly under the hood. The symbolic nature of the movie goes much further than that, of course, and actually represents a landscape portrait of America, as seen through the eyes of the director Hellman (and writer Rudy Wurlitzer, who would go on to write the script for the existential Sam Peckinpah anti-Western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a far superior precursor to Brad Pitt’s 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). They show America and, arguably, civilisation as we know it, to be founded upon the notion of everybody getting along somehow; they show life as a long road that we all travel, upon which we meet many people, some of whom we may not like because of what they represent, but we still need them just to get through life. Co-dependency, co-operation and communication (and the inherent lacks thereof) are what the film is truly trying to get at.
Shot in the post-Easy Rider era of filmmaking, this was the start of the New Age, when directors were getting increasing powers to turn in final cut of a movie without studio interference, and when they were starting to take liberties with budgets and shooting schedules; it was towards the start of just over a decade of movies that would culminate with masterpieces like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and would be finished by Cimino’s subsequent failed epic, Heaven’s Gate, which put an end to free-reign director-driven projects and saw studio-driven projects take over. But back in 1971, the budgets were still low and the directors were just starting to prove that they could deliver powerful, atypical, often existential productions which would appeal to the then-disenchanted masses.
Indeed Two-Lane Blacktop looks like it was made for next to nothing, and unsurprisingly was, but perhaps that just further adds to its charm. On the one hand the project was inherently documentary-like in nature (they shot it whilst actually driving across America, and the leads were not given the script in advance of their day’s shooting), yet on the other its symbolism gives it an almost mythical feel, as if we’re watching something more than just a bunch of travellers racing: we’re watching people’s lives pass by.
At the end of the day what makes Two-Lane Blacktop stand out amidst a plethora of other existential road movies that both started before it, and have been popular ever since, is the fact that it is actually quite enthralling, in spite of its ostensible shortcomings. Non-actors, no budget, little overt direction, no obvious story and arguably even less dialogue – you’d expect it to be a tedious piece of artsy fluff (which, ironically, pretty-much sums up Hellman’s Road to Nowhere). Yet here it all gels together, and the end result is remarkably watchable and consistently entertaining. It may draw criticism, but in this respect I would personally argue that Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop is superior to the obvious choice for definitive existential road movie, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider.
If you’re prepared for something a little quieter, more nuanced, and both reflective and introspective, but without all the pomp and glory that normally accompanies feature films, then check out this much loved cult classic.
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