America in the early 1970′s seems like a magical, foreign land these days. A country where the youth were dispossessed with the establishment, anger at Vietnam was raging, Kennedy, Malcolm X and King had all been killed mere years before and the Nixon spin machine was in full swing.
This heady mix produced a new wave of hard hitting social drama from America’s independent film companies, launching the careers of Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper to name but a few. Easy Rider had set the precedence for the road movie in 1968 but in 1971 a film outside the tight nit social pack was beating them at their own game and director, Monte Hellman, made a film so poignant, it represents the time of youth better than any documentary.
Two-Lane Blacktop is the story of two young men whose lives revolve around road racing a customised ’55 Chevrolet. Nothing else is present in their lives, nothing else matters, just the tarmac, the purring of the engine and avoiding real life. This chimes perfectly with the youth of the day whose disillusionment with society was at an all time high. The two men drive (James Taylor and Dennis Wilson) around the long, empty roads of America’s back yard, seeking races with other drivers and continuing on the road to no where. Even when a girl (Laurie Bird) decides to take a ride with them without asking, they barely notice her presence. Their only love lies with the car, which is the only topic of conversation. James Taylor plays the distanced and precise driver who only races at the right time. His character seems like a continuation of Taylor’s real life persona yet he only becomes active at the thought of a potential race.
The car itself is brought wonderfully to life and acts as another character in the film. Though it’s shell is an old battered car, its customized engine means it’s a machine that can keep up with the best. This leads to some wonderful underestimating on the competing racer’s part and also a powerful metaphor for what the establishment really thought of America’s lost youth.
A fourth character appears in the form of Warren Oates, an older man said to be out on business but in reality is just as socially lost as the youths. The majority of the film is taken up with an across the state race between him and the Chevy, yet the journey heightens the similarities between the two and ultimately leaves them closer as a group even if in the end they’re geographically miles apart. Oates’ character has a different story for every hitchhiker he picks up. No one particularly cares until the final person wanting a lift, who’s all ears, showing a change in apathy of the nation. The film ends with Taylor in one final race. He surveys his surroundings and then the howl of engine screams out but the sound cuts out as the film literally burns into nothing. We never know the outcome of the race but the death of the American dream is present in true Hunter S. Thompson style for all to mourn.
The Universal release has no extras but a decent print of the film. If you’re lucky enough to own a Blu-Ray player then the Masters of Cinema release is chocked full of goodies but if you’re just after the film, the only choice in Region 2 is this release (Region 1 has an excellent Criterion edition).
Two-Lane Blacktop represents a time when American filmmaking was at a new time high. The establishment would gain its foothold again in the 1980′s but for now, the road was long and endless, the engine was roaring and the destination was unknown. Feel the fear. Feel the loathing.