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Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

I still don't get what 'Two-Lane' means...
I still don't get what 'Two-Lane' means...

Genre: Drama

Starring: James TaylorWarren Oates (The Wild BunchBring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia)

Directed By: Monte Hellman (CockfighterThe Shooting)

Overview: A driver, a mechanic and a girl get into a cross country race with their car as the prize.

As one of my film-freak friends pointed out very early on in our first viewing of Two-Lane Blacktop, it’s like no other car culture / racing movie out there. It’s not a hip, action-packed Vanishing Point filled with shots of gearshifts and close-ups of tires. Their cross-country ride is not an Easy Rider adventure of exploration / condemnation / celebration of American culture. And it’s certainly far too pessimistic to be called a coming-of-age American Graffiti, celebrating youth and car culture.

The story is rather simple. A driver (James Taylor), and his mechanic (Dennis Wilson – yes the drummer of the Beach Boys) go from city to city, earning their money drag racing. They pick up a girl hitchhiking (Laurie Bird). As they drive around in their Chevrolet 150 painted a matte primer grey, they keep seeing a shiny-bright, slick yellow 1970 Pontiac GTO. Its driver (Warren Oates) challenges the Chevy to a race. They suggest the biggest prize: the pink slip of car ownership. He retorts by making it a long-distance contest to Washington, D.C. They accept and the race is on.

GTO and the girl
GTO and the girl

Even the credits do a wonderful job of pointing out what’s important to the lives of these characters: The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl, and G.T.O. Everyone else in the movie is equally nameless, the credits filled with job titles and locations, like ‘Tennessee Hitchhiker’ and ‘Waitress in Roadhouse’, instead of proper names. Two-Lane Blacktop is as broody and single-mindedly focussed as The Driver. He keeps his head down and hates distractions. In one scene, The Girl begins massaging him while he drives. She comments on how tense his shoulders are. He tells her, eyes never leaving the road, that it’s how he likes them. The mechanic is a little less stoic, but he gives their Chevy 150 all the care of a good lover, including lines like “yeah, she needs some attention”, and “I polished that crankshaft so fine the cylinders whispered my name.” For his part, G.T.O. is all pomp and flash, rattling off stats and stories, proving to the audience that he’s prideful and inexperienced, even at middle age. He just talks. When the boys act out and puff their chests, it’s to bait, humiliate and push their potential opponents to step up the game and put real money on the table.

After a few hours of this long-distance race with these kids, it’s a real treat to watch G.T.O.’s character arc. He might be racing for glory and image, but the boys are racing to teach him a lesson while ever proving something to themselves. G.T.O. gets to know them, and you can almost see the moment when he realizes that he’s part of something real, that he’s forging something these kids have already built long ago. This is what Two-Lane Blacktop offers its viewers. And this is what seekers of Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift are going to get bored during. Racing isn't the focus - in fact it's downright Jarmuscian how Two-Lane Blacktop seems to actively avoid showing it. The very first race scene seems to intentionally thumb its nose at the action, showing prize money changing hands before the contest then cutting to a long shot of taillights in the dark with the race over.

The Driver and The Mechanic are singular in purpose, and so their archetypes are quickly understood. G.T.O. on the other hand lives a fascinating life and it’s a pleasure to watch him grow. Warren Oates is playing a great role and I couldn’t get enough of him.

Two-Lane Blacktop is quiet and deliberately paced. It’s more personal that American Graffiti, it’s more specific than Easy Rider, it’s more honest than Vanishing Point. And though it begins and ends with cars, it’s not about cars… cars are merely the vehicle used to show the souls of these characters… yeah, ‘vehicle’… I couldn’t resist.

 Gorgeous cars...
Gorgeous cars...

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 8 Script: 8 Plot: 8 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 82% (Might Even Be Worth a Two-Time Viewing)

Another wonderful example of an understated, little-known film that I went into knowing only ‘it’s about classic cars’, the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book delivers another enjoyable drama that I otherwise never would have known about. 

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