TWO-LANE BLACKTOP — THE CRITERION COLLECTION
Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.
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Where “Easy Rider’s” dual protagonists — played by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda — were drug-smuggling hippie outlaws, the four main characters in “Two-Lane Blacktop” represent a broader generational spectrum of American wartime experience. A malaise of alienation has set in.
Muscle car engines roar with masculine purpose. The wavering sound of a car radio gives way to the blaring horn of a locomotive passing over a bridge that James Taylor (the “Driver”) and Dennis Wilson (the “Mechanic”) drive under. Route 66 is their mission, their way of life. The gear heads speak in a shorthand code. All text and subtext emanates from their car-related patter. They keep all ambition, political thought, and emotion bottled-up — tight. Loyalty exists only as a function of collaboration, but not as an expression of passion, much less one of freedom; that’s something that can only be obtained when the car wheels are in motion.
Autonomy is the name of the game. They make their living by getting into races with lesser drivers they know they can beat. The guys are likable sharks, but sharks nonetheless. In another era, they would have been poker-playing cowboys. In their unpainted 1955 Chevy “One-Fifty” the duo represent throwbacks to the grease-covered, white-t-shirted teen boys of the ‘50s who spent all their money and spare time building hot-rods from interchangeable pieces of American cars dating back decades. A philosophy of universal utility runs through their unfettered logic.
A wisp of a plot seems to emerge after the boys unintentionally take on a hitchhiker — Laurie Bird (“the Girl”) — who climbs into the back seat of their notably uncomfortable parked car; any excess weight caused by luxuries such as upholstery have been removed. She has to share the back seat with a spare wheel. GTO (Warren Oates), a road rival in a mass-produced 1970 yellow Pontiac, baits the trio when he passes them. A gas station meet-up seals the deal for a race to Washington D.C. where the car-owners mail their pink slips for the winner to retrieve. Yet the “race” proves to be a transparent MacGuffin that facilitates the film’s existential examination of America’s social underbelly.
“Two-Lane Blacktop” prompts a dialogue of uncertain expectation with its audience. For a movie about a race, it moves at a snail’s pace. The Girl is enigmatic in her free-willed approach to romance. She dabbles with men as if tasting half-bites from a cheap box of chocolates. Like the film’s male characters, the road is her master too.
Warren Oates carries the story’s theme lines — as written by screenwriters Will Cory and Rudolph Wurlitzer. “I’ve got speed to think about,” GTO says before concocting a lie about his imaginary familial relationship to the Driver, the Mechanic, and the Girl. Life is something you make up in the moment, or something you get inside of and drive. As the ancient Chinese proverb goes, “Life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination.”
Rated R. 102 mins.