Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, 1971)

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It’s difficult to describe the true effect of a film where so little happens. On paper it’s a film that’s been pitched and seen a thousand times over, as two cars race across the country for pride, honor and the other’s car. Neither party seems particularly involved in the race though, and their obsession with cars seems to be a replacement or a metaphor for something… they seem to speak and live according to a private language and code that is seemingly impenetrable.

The film does not emphasize the rush of their lifestyle. It’s appeal is largely due to the high of laying life on the edge. The nameless characters are constantly pushing their cars harder, trying to get faster, further, and better. That being said, the filmmaking is so understated and the characters so private, that the audience is never allowed to feel the excitement of the open road.

What is the appeal of the film? It lies in brief moments of great emotion. Contrasting against the three young people in the old Chevy, there is the larger than life Warren Oates who seems to have a different story about who he is for every day of the year. He chews scenery like few others, but he is perhaps the most tragic of the characters. There is an incredible desperation in his actions and voice, and I’d argue he is one of the truly tragic characters of cinema. What is he searching for? What is he running from? We never know, but we feel the anguish and suffering boiling under the surface. His attempt at winning over the young and quiet girl who rides with the other two men is especially marking. She looks young, too young in fact… and yet there is nothing nefarious or creepy about his apparent advances, perhaps because we never trust him to act out his fantasies and desires. He exists only through his words, his actions are meaningless and completely non-aggressive.

She is the center of everything, and easily the most elusive. The film, more or less, begins when she sits in the back of a Chevy and they drive away with her. She is the eternal drifter, any relationships she builds with the people she rides with are somehow completely shallow and naive. Yet, this is why they are so beautiful and pure. We can often know strangers more deeply and passionately than people we have known for our whole lives, see and live with everyday. The anonymity allows for more freedom, though it also robs us of the comfort of knowing someone and having them know you.

She is a blank slate, an image of innocence and trust. You can love her and she will love you back, even if it means nothing. Even if you get involved, she never will, but you’ll be able to have her and memories of her for a moment in eternity.

Three favourite moments;

James Taylor comes back to his hotel, hears the girl and the mechanic making love. He sits outside, waiting for them to finish. It’s so quiet, impersonal and even sad… for all of them.

The scene where they set up the race. They’ve all stopped at a gas station, and the girl sits in Oates’ car. She plays a cassette of Me and Bobby McGee. You can really feel how much he wants her.

The mechanic tries to teach the girl how to drive. Their hands meet on the gear stick. They play with each other’s fingers, and she asks if he’s playing a game. “Maybe”

5 responses to “Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, 1971)

  1. This film kinda snuck up on me, I didn’t know much about it when I first watched it. I find it to be a minimalist masterpiece, it seems like the only thing they feel comfortable talking about is their cars, and it’s fascinating to watch. You can sort of tell James Talyor and Dennis Wilson have limited acting ability, but they suit their characters so well, it’s never a distraction. Warren Oates should’ve got an oscar nomination.

  2. Same, I didn’t know anything about it until I read the back cover before renting it. It was wonderful and I’m happy I did. I empathise with Taylor/Dennis because I often feel that beyond film, that I struggle to talk comfortably, unless I’m with a few select people.

    Oates’ performance is brilliant, absolutely devastating too.

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