When it comes to giving a fair assessment of Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop (1971) I will be the first to admit that A: its not the type of film I traditionally would watch, its a 1970’s film and I am very picky about the decade’s movies, preferring 1970’s music over movies; and B: the only reason I wanted to see it was because The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson (drummer until his premature 1983 death) made his only film with this movie.
Doing more research, I quickly learned this film was in the Criterion Collection and in the National Film Registry, part of me knew I had to give this film a real chance and see why critics call it, ‘the most pure American road movie ever made‘.
I would had never even heard of Two Lane Blacktop if it wasn’t for Dennis, and to see anything Dennis did around this period in his life, as he was healthy and sober, is a real treat for Beach Boys fans (such as myself!!).
With that being said, it should be noted this film is rare and not easily found on TV or streaming. It earned a cult status right from the get go in 1971, with Universal head Lew Wasserman hating the film, telling the marketing/ PR departments to kill any and all publicity about it.
The premise of Two Lane isn’t really explainable, there is no legit plot. Its real focus is on the characters: what they do and who they encounter on the open road. James Taylor is The Driver, Dennis plays The Mechanic, Laurie Bird goes by The Girl, and Warren Oates is referred to as GTO (yes, he is called after his car). We never find out their real names, and aside from Oates, none of the others ever did a movie before.
Basically, The Driver and Mechanic drive around on the open road picking up hitchhikers and participate in drag races for money. They may be ‘partners on the road’ but that’s it~ they don’t even talk to each other besides saying vital information, such as their next stop or what part of the car needs to be fixed. To say they are friends isn’t a description of how they are together- yet at the same time, they have a great dynamic.
The only real hint of plot comes when The Girl wanders in their car when they stop at a diner, and later when GTO challenges them on a cross country race for the pink slip to the loser’s car- and even then, it’s not even important to the film. This movie is more so a time capsule about America in the early 1970s: gas stations, the open road, diners, cars, the landscapes of small towns- even vintage advertising.
Its easy to compare this movie to 1969’s Easy Rider, but I would beg to differ arguing this movie is the flip side of the coin. Its minimalist qualities and uncertain, flaky premise make it a more “laid back” movie of the New Hollywood era. However, I would be lying of I said this film is something you can half ignore while watching- as everything you see is pure cinema; and its similar to a silent film in that regard. If you watch it straightforward its going to be boring, but if you concentrate on the character’s motive’s and what they are doing- it turns into a complex film with many layers to be thought about.
I came away from this film being totally saddened by the fact I was back in my own world, as the atmosphere it creates is a whole different one. I wanted to remain in the world of being on the road and in that feeling of being carefree. I was dying to find out more about these people who drove around in their car looking for life’s adventures. It was a bit slow in some parts, but it more than made up for it with its scenery and racing parts- (queue the lyric: TACH IT UP, TACH IT UP, BUDDY GONNA SHUT YOU DOWN!)
Overall, Two Lane Blacktop is certainly not for everyone, but for those who are interested: it’s a slow ride to savor- and take over again.
CLICK HERE to learn more on Criterion’s website