Few movies are more beloved by fans of ennui-drenched ’70s counterculture cinema than Monte Hellman’s enigmatic drama Two-Lane Blacktop, which for years was almost impossible to see: Glimpsed only fleetingly in late-night broadcasts or repertory screenings, the movie built a reputation throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s as one of the lost masterpieces of the New Hollywood era. Now that the picture has been widely available for a decade, its shortcomings are as apparent as its virtues.
Viewed from a counterculture perspective, the tale of men drag-racing their way across the U.S. is a potent metaphor for the way young people felt adrift in an era when they discarded their parents’ values—but taken merely at face value, the picture seems opaque and pretentious. In fact, Two-Lane Blacktop somehow manages to justify both interpretations simultaneously. At its best, the movie says volumes about directionless youth, and at its worst, the movie itself is directionless.
The narrative is almost mythical in its simplicity: The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) zoom a hopped-up ’55 Chevy across America, picking up cash here and there by challenging strangers to races. Meanwhile, a slightly older man, G.T.O. (Warren Oates), identified only by the make of his yellow muscle car, cruises the highways in tandem with the heroes, occasionally bonding with them and occasionally clashing. The other major player is The Girl (Laurie Bird), a freethinking hitchhiker who spends most of her time in the Chevy, romancing The Driver, but also ends up in the G.T.O. from time to time.
All of the characters cite vague goals they want to accomplish, but in reality they’re addicted to the freedom of the road, presumably as interested in running away from something as running toward something. Obviously, there’s a lot of thematic heft implied by this situation, and in one of the movie’s best lines, Oates articulates what’s stirring inside these rootless racers: “If I’m not grounded pretty soon,” he says, “I’m gonna go into orbit.” In another scene, Oates toasts Taylor by saying, “Here’s to your destruction.” Taylor’s reply: “Same to you.”
Are these characters seeking oblivion or salvation? Director Hellman and the movie’s writers (Will Corry, Floyd Mutrux, and Rudy Wurlitzer) aren’t interested in answers. Instead, the filmmakers focus on the day-to-day reality of moving down the road from one hamburger stand to the next, stopping only for sleep or to fix a broken engine; the clear implication is that the road is life, and the characters represent all of us trying to find our way even though we don’t know where we’re supposed to go.
Other movies made similar points with greater clarity and depth, but the symbolic nature of the characters in Two-Lane Blacktop still speaks to people decades after the film’s original release. Part of the appeal is undoubtedly the presence of real-life rock musicians Taylor and Wilson, since this was the only time either gave a significant acting performance. Neither is particularly revelatory, but they’re both handsome and intense, representing a certain romantic ideal of the Angry Young Man circa early-’70s America.
Two-Lane Blacktop: FUNKY