Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, Dennis Wilson
Director:  Monte Hellman
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  103 Minutes
Release Date:  December 11, 2007

"I go fast enough."

"You can NEVER go fast enough."

Film ***1/2

Two-Lane Blacktop could be considered the Easy Rider of the 70s, but with a few marked differences.  Whereas the classic biker film by Dennis Hopper captured and reflected a certain spirit of freedom and rebellion inherent in its decade, Monte Hellman’s road race film treats its subjects as almost alien, lost souls.  The characters have miles and miles of open road to call their home, yet the movie doesn’t sing an ode to freedom.  These people are trapped and isolated, and don’t really seem to understand it.

For starters, none of the characters in the film even have names.  They are simply known as the driver (Taylor), the mechanic (Wilson), the girl (Bird) and the GTO (Oates).  The driver and the mechanic travel in a souped up 55 Chevy.  When they speak to one another, it’s entirely the language of automobiles.  They make their money scoping out races.  They have no past.  They have no future.

The movie seems to have settled instinctively on the one interesting chapter in their lives, and it involves two other lonely, detached individuals.  The first is the girl, who simply climbs into the back of their car while the pair are having breakfast.  They get back in the car without saying a word to her.  Likewise, she doesn’t speak.  They drive off as though fated to be together.  Finally, somewhere along the road, she asks, “Where are we headed?”  “East,” the mechanic replies.  “Cool,” she agrees.  “I’ve never been east.”

The other character is the GTO, so named because he drives a slick new Pontiac GTO.  The two cars encounter one another many times along the road, each driver wondering if the other is making a challenge.  Like the driver and mechanic, the GTO has no real past or future.  He picks up a few hitchhikers along the way, and spins a different life story to each one.  One of his passengers falls asleep, and the GTO repeats the story he’d been telling the fellow verbatim.

Eventually, the characters meet up, and the race is on.  The GTO picks Washington D.C. as the finish line.  Why so far, we wonder?  Couldn’t a simple drag race down a deserted road accomplish the same results?  But when you have nowhere to go and nothing to do, you find something to occupy your time.

The race proceeds in ways that are both fascinating, and sometimes a little humorous.  Even though their respective cars are on the line, they still find time to meet up and share a drink or snack from the back of their cars.  Which sort of lends to the film’s theme about being trapped rather than being free.  These characters’ world is not the endless stretch of highway, but their cars.  Nothing changes for either of them no matter where they go.  Their microcosm of existence simply goes along with them.

Note even how the blossoming but ultimately failing romance between the driver and the girl play out.  Their most tender scene involves the driver trying to teach the girl how to use the stick shift (an obvious innuendo).  Her failure to get it right, or his failure to show her properly, is quite symbolic.  Later in the film, when it’s clear she’s going to take off, his bumbling attempt at some kind of proposal is simply that he wants her to go with him to Columbus, where he can get some good auto parts cheap.  It’s as sad as it is funny.

And the GTO complains about his passengers:  “Just one fantasy after another”, he calls them.  Whose fantasy?  His or theirs?  An interesting question considering how he manages a different life story each time around.  He sadly remarks to the girl at one point, “If I don’t get grounded soon, I’m gonna go into orbit.”  But grounding for any of these characters is not to be.  At the end of the picture, he picks up a couple of young soldiers, and begins to tell the tale about how he used his older Chevy in a race to beat a couple of young punks driving a GTO.  Considering the three men are riding in that GTO, the soldiers are as bewildered as we are.

By chance or by fate, both cars have a separate encounter with death along their journey.  The driver and mechanic, while playing a little road rage game with another driver, come across a lethal accident in the middle of a road.  A man lies dead.  The driver of an overturned truck, obviously shaken, describes the dead man as having played the same kind of game the two leads were just engaged in.  Meanwhile, the GTO picks up an old woman and her granddaughter, who are going to the cemetery where the younger girl’s parents have just been laid to rest.  “A city car,” the old woman says quietly.  “It was a city car that killed them.”

The film’s final shot is somewhat famous.  The driver, engaged in yet another quick race to make some cash, sits behind the wheel.  We begin to notice that the images are slowing down.  The soundtrack reduces itself to silence.  The signal is given, the cars take off.  We watch from the rear seat, looking at the back of the driver’s head and the open road ahead.  The film gets slower and slower, until it freezes and burns in the projector.  Who won the big race?  We don’t know.  What does this ending signify?  The driver’s death?  Possibly…or maybe just the suggestion that these characters are living in a kind of death as it is.  They were told earlier on that they can’t live that kind of life forever.  Yet they don’t seem to have anything else.

Monte Hellman, another one of Roger Corman’s protégés, created a symbolic and entrancing road movie with Two-Lane Blacktop.  His mastery as a director shows in the way he cultivates his images and relies on them more than the dialogue to convey his story and expose his characters.  I’ve already mentioned comparisons to Easy Rider and my opinion that this movie represents the imprisonment of that lifestyle rather than the freedom of it.  This comes across through Hellman’s filming.  Hopper moved his camera in and out and around his bikes effortlessly.  There was a sense of unlimited space and complete lack of rules.  Hellman’s characters take a similar journey across America, but we always see the world from the point of view of inside the car.  When we’re outside the car, we’re looking in at them.  It doesn’t even matter what the outside world is.  Their world is encased in glass and steel, and anything outside of it barely exists.

Hellman claims he cast James Taylor for the role of the driver after seeing his picture on a billboard.  Taylor’s music career was just beginning to take off, but he agreed to test for and appear in this picture.  I admit, I chuckled when I saw his name on the box, but I have to admit, he was right for the role.  He plays the driver with a quiet kind of intensity, and maintains a believable sense of being lost when it comes to communicating outside the world of the automobile.  Equally good is the late Dennis Wilson, who was most famous for being the Beach Boys’ drummer, but strikes a good casual note as the man who’s so in tune with the car that he makes statements like, “It’s not breathing right.”

Warren Oates, however, is a true standout as the GTO.  He brings all the right notes to this character, from the loneliness to the silly smugness.  This could have easily been just another caricature in a road movie, but he manages to bring out the humor and the sadness, and find just the right amount of truth in a character that, as he puts it, is so ungrounded.

Like Heavy Metal, Two-Lane Blacktop once seemed lost in a permanent state of moratorium because of song copyright issues.  Those issues have been resolved, and now, thanks to Criterion, fans can enjoy a quality DVD presentation of this cult classic at home, and bring the lost highway of these characters into their living rooms.

Video ***

With this anamorphic transfer, Criterion makes yet another convincing argument that no widescreen film should be cropped.  Monte Hellman’s sense of framing throughout is impeccable, and really adds to the dynamics of the film.  You can’t appreciate how trapped these characters are until you see the world through their windshield; an effect lost in pan and scan.  Overall, this is a quality presentation on disc, with only a few minor complaints.  A few dark scenes exhibit some kind of horizontal line in the top third of the picture, along with some graininess.  Other dark scenes, particularly the opening ones, look much better, and maintain an excellent sense of clarity and integrity.  Brighter scenes render beautifully, with sharp images and excellent, natural and well contained coloring.  It’s clear that some effort was made to bring this older film up to DVD standards, and fans will certainly appreciate the overall results.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Bruce Dern was originally offered the role of the driver.

Audio ***1/2

Between the two, I prefer the newly mastered 5.1 soundtrack to the original mono, largely because the loudness of the revving engines is too much for the limited channel, which tends to distort a little.  The 5.1 mix spreads it around nicely, gives it more dynamic range and a little kick from the subwoofer, and the result is a cleaner, fuller and more dynamic soundtrack.  The rear speakers come into play quite nicely during the opening and some of the racing scenes throughout, with a fair amount of signal crossover from front to back.  These all render smoothly and with good balance.  Dialogue and music are mostly forward staged, and both sound clean and clear with no problems.  All in all, another excellent job of audio remastering from Criterion.

Features ****

The disc features new interviews with Monte Hellman, James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, producer Michael Laughlin and production manager Walter Coblenz.  There are rare, never before seen screen test outtakes, plus a look at the film's locations today and the restoration of a 1955 Chevy.  Rounding out is a trailer and some publicity galleries.  The disc also includes an excellent book that features a reprinted screenplay, plus essays and appreciations including Richard Linklater and Tom Waits, and an original 1970 article on the film that was published in Rolling Stone.


Two-Lane Blacktop may have been an almost-forgotten American classic, but it may just find the audience it deserves with this quality DVD offering from Criterion.

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