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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Monte Hellman’s ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Monte Hellman's 'Two-Lane Blacktop'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“Two-Lane Blacktop”
Dir: Monte Hellman
Criticwire Average: —

The concept of the “open road,” and all of its existential connotations, has been the subject of many works of art long before Dennis Hopper’s counterculture classic “Easy Rider” popularized it on film, but Monte Hellman’s “Two-Lane Blacktop” embodies the open road, assuming all of its flatness, apathy, and loneliness. Though the film follows two nomads, identified as The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), as they race across the country against another desperate, talkative driver called G.T.O. (Warren Oates), it never develops that bare-bones premise into anything that can reasonably be called a “plot.” Stripping away characterization, traditional narrative structure, and any sort of emotional or narrative resolution, Hellman and screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer (“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”) focus their collective energy on capturing the haunted restlessness of their surroundings. “Two-Lane Blacktop” assumes the weird, anxious rhythms of America and channels that alienated energy into “the road,” an infinite place that contains everything and nothing.

For obvious reasons, “Two-Lane Blacktop” was marketed as a “road film,” but Hellman didn’t take his cues from that then-nascent genre and instead looked to European directors like Michelangelo Antonioni for the film’s tone. As a result, Hellman doesn’t simply shoot drag races and muscle cars, but rather observes the road with a curious gaze, content to watch The Driver and The Mechanic obliquely engage with each other or the hostile pissing matches between them and G.T.O. Hellman constantly frames his subjects as just another part of their environment, using wide compositions not only to capture the barren open road, but also how everyone on it is unmoored from their existence. It’s why most of “Two-Lane Blacktop” is silent: The characters’ stilted actions and survivalist motives speak louder than their words ever could. But when they do speak, it’s often to express masked distress or submerged fear. Lines like “You can never go fast enough,” “Performance and image, that’s what it’s all about,” or “I never been East,” brim with an almost unbearable sorrow.

But “Two-Lane Blacktop” never tips its hand, but instead communicates these ideas through suggestion and subtle gestures. It’s through James Taylor’s hollowed-out expressions, the wordless sequences of driving, and Oates cheery-turned-alcoholic disposition that convey the true loneliness at the heart of the film. Furthermore, the film offers no easy answers or, God forbid, “solutions” to any of its open mysteries. The Girl (Laurie Bird) enigmatically shifts allegiances between the various men on the road, purposefully denying any of them, along with the audience, the chance to know her any better. The “race” between the two parties is constantly abandoned in favor of gear-tinkering and rest stops. There are mentions of high “pink slip” stakes, but really the true stakes are the nature of their souls. “Two-Lane Blacktop” is primarily a mood piece, and Hellman wants the audience to be imbued with the uneasy feeling of living without any roots.

It’s that feeling that’s elevates “Two-Lane Blacktop” far beyond genre trappings and into the heights of cinema. Few other films feel so strongly like death and decay just through shots of people silently driving. There’s a sense of dread that plagues the film, but mostly pops up on the margins, like the hitchhikers G.T.O picks up, which include an eerie grandmother taking her granddaughter to see her dead parents who were killed by a “city car.” At times, “Two-Lane Blacktop” feels overwhelmingly sad, and it’s mostly because of the characters’ resignation, like they’ve all accepted that there is no future or past, just an endless present that only promises more open road, but less answers and no meaning. The Driver and The Mechanic may survive by racing fellow car freaks, but they’ll always be in orbit. G.T.O. may get some pleasure from regaling hitchhikers with fake stories of glory, but he’ll always be running from a life that never got started. The Girl may jump from car to car and person to person, but she’ll never let anyone close to her. Everyone’s looking for permanent satisfactions, but no one is anywhere closer to finding them. And just when the next race is about to begin, the sound cuts out and the film melts before your eyes, leaving everyone in a perpetual state of ennui never to be lifted by the comforts of the road.

More thoughts from the web:

Vincent Canby, The New York Times

In the hearts of many Americans, I suspect, faith in God is a lot less important, less immediate and even less mystical than faith in the internal combustion engine. It’s no wonder. The internal combustion engine, especially when it is placed in an automobile, is something that can be touched, tinkered with, modified, souped up and, when necessary, dismantled, as well as worshiped as the means by which a man makes his way through life. When your destination is without meaning, your style must be expressed through transportation, according to the wisdom of the contemporaries. Thus, nothing becomes modern man as much as the wheels in which he makes his arrivals and departures. In Monte Hellman’s new film, “Two-Lane Blacktop,”…the godhead is the crankcase of a 454-cubic-inch, high-performance ’55 Chevy with aluminum heads, the car through which two young men, identified only as The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), realize their destinies in a series of drag races in Esso country, across blacktop space and through stop-watch time. If my description so far sounds heavily metaphoric, it’s because “Two-Lane Blacktop” looks very much like the sort of movie that was conceived as a metaphor and, only after some difficult labor pains, given form as a literal narrative. Ordinarily, it’s the sort of movie I find easy to resist; since I prefer metaphors that, like friends, reveal themselves in the natural order of events, without proclamations. “Two-Lane Blacktop,” however, is a remarkably engaging movie, mostly in spite of, rather than because of, its metaphorical aspirations. All of which was most surprising to me after having plowed through the screenplay, by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry, which Esquire published last April and, with a certain reckless optimism, described as its “nomination for the movie of the year,” even though there were still eight months to go.

Keith Phipps, The Dissolve

Not only does “Two-Lane Blacktop” reveal little about where its characters come from, it seems to forget where it’s going. Though declared a race “for pinks” that will leave the winner in possession of both cars, the contest frequently gets put on hold — and maybe forgotten — as the participants trade cars, help each other with repairs, share meals, and stop in mutually agreed-upon locations. The race is just an excuse created by people who know they need to keep moving. The film doesn’t share that instinct. It’s more inclined to sit and observe. “Two-Lane Blacktop’s” terrain comes from Westerns, and its themes come from B-movies. But Hellman’s approach is European in inspiration. He shares Michelangelo Antonioni’s clear belief that staging figures moving across a frame, or watching others move, is its own kind of action, that characters can sometimes be better defined by their inability to express themselves, and that by drawing out the pace of the film, he can immerse viewers in his characters’ ennui. He also shares Godard’s fondness for disrupting the form of film itself, even if here, he mostly confines that instinct to “Two-Lane’s” final scene, in which the film appears to catch in the projector, then bubble and burn. That touch was Hellman’s idea, but it confirms Wurlitzer’s claims: There is no end to this movie. There’s no end to the road. It’s a way to escape that doubles as a trap. Read more.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

This exciting existentialist road movie by Monte Hellman, with a swell script by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry and my favorite Warren Oates performance, looks even better now than it did in 1971, although it was pretty interesting back then as well. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are the drivers of a supercharged ’55 Chevy, and Oates is the owner of a new GTO (these nameless characters are in fact identified only by the cars they drive); they meet and agree to race from New Mexico to the east coast, though an assortment of side interests periodically distracts them, including various hitchhikers (among them Laurie Bird). (GTO hilariously assumes a new persona every time he picks up a new passenger, rather like the amorphous narrator in Wurlitzer’s novel “Nog.”) The movie starts off as a narrative but gradually grows into something much more abstract — it’s unsettling but also beautiful. Read more.

David Thompson, The New Republic

So “Two-Lane Blacktop” never stoops to the hippy v. redneck politics of “Easy Rider,” and it is a film that doesn’t do drugs — who needs such things with the euphoria of cars, the road, and sweaters? The race they engage in is supposed to be headed for D.C., but no one believes they’ll get that far. Somewhere in Tennessee the Driver and the Mechanic pick up a challenge with a side bet and the picture ends — not with that race or a conclusion — but with the film of Driver’s face jamming in the gate of the projector and beginning to burn. You can say that’s an easy way out, but I think it’s true to the harsh, deadpan poetics of this rare movie. Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, Letterboxd

Analyzing this film feels wrong, somehow. Its greatness lies in how much it strips away: conventional performances (apart from Oates, who serves as garrulous counterpoint to Taylor and Wilson’s superlative blankness), narrative payoffs (where are the tortured Internet debates about who gets the pinks?), establishing shots, etc. What remains is as pure as Americana gets — a road movie that’s genuinely, as its title declares, about the actual road. My sole reservation is the way it treats The Girl as chattel for the men, which not only reeks of unthinking sexism but belatedly introduces real conflict (via Taylor’s sudden fixation with her) in a film that had been doggedly and deftly sidestepping it up to that point. But that’s only a minor speedbump, offset by gorgeously uninflected shots of Taylor and Wilson silently eating lunch in a truck-stop diner; Oates leaning pensively against a Coke dispenser while chugging a bottle; a random family stopping at the site of an accident and jogging toward the wreckage in alarm, whereupon Hellman cuts to G.T.O picking up his next hitchhiker, never to return. Very hard to articulate the things I love about this one. They seem banal when you describe them, but they thrum on the screen. Read more.

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

Hellman is an American director whose work is much prized by the French, who have a knack for finding existential truths in movies we thought were Westerns. I haven’t seen his earlier films (“Beast from Haunted Cave,” “The Shooting,” “Ride in the Whirlwind”), but this one is very personal. It seems to come from a single vision of the road, the race, and life; and, paradoxically, the characters need to be impersonal so they don’t interfere with this vision. They are all too impersonal, though, and that’s bothersome. After half an hour or so, the fact that we’re told so little about their inner workings becomes a distraction. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason for making them so awesomely one-dimensional. Some critics complained that “Carnal Knowledge” limited itself too much to one layer of the characters’ lives; but “Two-Lane Blacktop” is even more specialized. The movie is intended, I suppose, to be a metaphor. But unless I missed the point, it doesn’t have much of anything new to tell us. Sophomores in literary criticism could probably decode it as a metaphor involving the kinds of characters we meet, and our lack of communication with them, and yet our fundamental dependency on them, during life’s journey — but so what? Hardly anyone needs to be told that. What I liked about “Two-Lane Blacktop” was the sense of life that occasionally sneaked through, particularly in the character of G.T.O. (Warren Oates). He is the only character who is fully occupied with being himself (rather than the instrument of a metaphor), and so we get the sense we’ve met somebody. That, and some of the racing and road scenes, and the visual texture of the movie, make it worth seeing. Read more.

J Hoberman, The Village Voice

“We blew it,” Fonda’s Captain America declared. “Two-Lane Blacktop” would be proof. Months before completion, this story of an existential cross-country drag race was hailed “an instant classic” by “Rolling Stone,” while “Esquire” (which published Rudy Wurlitzer’s screenplay as its April 1971 cover story) prematurely declared it “movie of the year.” The hype was unsustainable. When “Two-Lane Blacktop” finally opened that summer, audiences were indifferent and critics underwhelmed — although the “Voice” did praise Hellman’s “feeling for the vast inhuman distances which form the face of America and the character of her people.” Inhuman, to be sure. Redeemed largely by Warren Oates’s galvanizing portrayal of the speed freak con artist who pits his 1970 Pontiac GTO against the souped-up 1955 Chevy driven by one zombie rock star (James Taylor) and serviced by another (Dennis Wilson), “Two-Lane Blacktop” is a movie of achingly eloquent landscapes and absurdly inert characters.

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