4 August 2008 | chaos-rampant
A superb road movie - and more than a road movie.
Warren Oates plays a GTO driver who, on his road East, challenges two car nuts for "pink slips". The first to get to Washington D.C. wins the other's car. The two young guys have also picked up a girl on their way, or more accurately, she just got in their car, no questions asked; who she is, where she's going, nada. She's just tagging along for the ride. All four major characters are drifters, men (and woman) with no names, and their credit titles reflect that: G.T.O., The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl. They're parts of a long tradition of genre anti-heroes, drifters and outcasts, that includes the likes of Sanjuro (Yojimbo) and The Man with No Name.
However they face the same paradox every cinematic anti-hero faces: by separating themselves from society, by refusing to sit still and conform, they're free; it's just them, the engine revving and the road. The problem is that even though they are free, they don't seem to realize it. They keep trying to define themselves through society values. As Warren Oates muses about settling down: "If I'm not grounded pretty soon, I'm gonna go into orbit". The only thing that still permits these people identity and a place in society is through their cars. If the end is a symbolic representation of this moral double-bind that pushes them into two opposite directions, only Monte Hellman knows.
The reason I'm musing about characters in a car movie however is simple. Two-Lane Blacktop is not just about the race between a 1955 Chevy and a 1970 Pontiac. And that's probably why the movie meanders seemingly aimlessly in places, as if in a trance. It's not a racing movie. It doesn't try to be a tight, gripping thriller. In that light, the sometimes slow pacing becomes part of what defines the movie. It feels more like some sort of existential journey through 70's America. But the beauty (and Hellman's talent) is that he refuses the easy way out of obvious allegories (the kind of which Jarmusch used in Dead Man). Things are pretty much open and left for interpretation. But as the two cars cross country on their way to Washington D.C., Hellman captures the zeitgeist of the times in a unique way. I don't know how this slice of Americana looks in the eyes of Americans, but for a European like me, it paints the country in the same mythic colours Sergio Leone's movies did. The difference being this is not a reconstruction of a time and era seen through the eyes of a fascinated European director, but real locations and people.
In any way, Two-Lane Blacktop is closer to Vanishing Point than Gone in 60 Seconds. A superb road movie on all counts and more than a road movie.