For large portions of Two Lane Blacktop you are just watching things happen without context. That includes dialog, and plot… there’s kind of a plot, it’s in theory a movie about a cross-country race. Everything about this movie is unfulfilling it’s promise. it’s not a movie about racing. It stars two musicians, features barely any music (like many of the great car movies, you spend a lot of time just listening to engines). On and on.
The movie has had an obvious present day influence, Tarantino and Refn stole from it for Death Proof and Drive, but it failed at the time. It may be the earliest death in the fall of New Hollywood, a decade before Heaven’s Gate. There’s a version of this movie that’s all macho bullshit, or fake art posturing, but director Monte Hellman and writer Rudy Wurlitzer (both of whom were most successful making existential, paranoid westerns and only collaborated once) aren’t interested in either. The emptiness of Two Lane Blacktop isn’t an affectation, and it isn’t there for contrast either. Wurlitzer did a legs-up rewrite on a trash script Hellman had been given by Roger Corman, turning it into a uniquely American movie about people who are unable to communicate their wants or needs. The four characters — none of whom have names — either don’t talk, only talk about their bullshit, or talk so much about bullshit that they shut other people down. Everyone is in crisis and saying nothing about it. That so much of it has been buried in cars is almost immaterial, if it didn’t ring so true as being part of the American pathology (Wurlitzer copied all the car dialog from hot rod magazines, and it’s got a weird verisimilitude even when it’s contradictory). The fact is, it doesn’t matter.
James Taylor’s innate charisma and awkwardness on camera — he never acted again — play into his character, but also work for the movie. He’s a lightning rod of a screen presence but I don’t think it makes his character any less of a prick. Warren Oates is the only trained actor in the movie (except for a 2 scene cameo by Harry Dean Stanton), and he never stops talking until he does. Those moments, he’s so vulnerable, it’s painful. The two big setpieces of the movie take place at a gas station and a diner respectively. In both scenes, nothing actually happens. Warren Oates, he clams up in both, and the tension crawls up the back of your eyes. Hellman says the diner scene is his tribute to Hitchcock, with tension building using the space and props, but it’s all internal. There’s no bomb going off.
The way these characters manage to understand one another and don’t, that’s the subject here. It’s not talking vs non-talking. Oates knows how to talk nonstop but he has moments catching himself, he’s struggling to keep it together. He needs to keep moving, then laments having no place to be tethered to. He can’t stand Taylor and Wilson, but he also recognizes they have the same thing going on behind the car shit. In one scene Oates tries to sell his line to Taylor and gets shut down with an “I don’t care”. He’s never been so incensed. Oates has some heavier shit going on than the younger guys because he realizes this is no way to live. The way Oates’ clothing changes colors scene to scene is testament to his volatility being one with his stability. Him presenting as normal is the hallmark of his weirdness.
This isn’t a psychedelic road movie, it’s an existential one. The scene where a good ole boy asks them if they’re hippies — the scene that’s in Easy Rider and so many other road movies of the time — is about mitigating violence with language, because they all know the danger in the moment. They’ve all experienced it and know how to get through it. They aren’t hippies. They aren’t normal people either. It’s not that “these guys don’t know how to talk to women” as this movie is often summed up. It’s that there’s something fundamentally broken in the way they convey what they need, it’s twisted and supplanted by the most useful narrative at any given moment. The moments where they interact with other people, they can manage them. They aren’t worth reaching out to. Like the car stuff. It’s alien. It’s a foreign language. The hitchhikers, the gas station attendants, car weirdos who swam them in small towns. They may as well be aliens. The car accident scene, the surviving driver walks up to Taylor and starts telling his story unbidden. He needs to be heard. He needs to be believed. Taylor seems more freaked out that the guy is talking to him than the dead body in the corner of the frame.
The movie’s dirtiest trick is it gets you to buy into those narratives. It becomes about Taylor and Oates fighting over Laurie Bird’s affections. We know that so much of convention has been shredded by this story but we as an audience still think “winning the girl” is a story structure so fundamental that we didn’t know it was a double bluff. The final moments in the diner, we are told from the beginning it’s about possession of Bird. She gets up and leaves, without saying anything, and the race suddenly doesn’t matter anymore. She even throws her baggage in the street as she leaves. Good writing is obvious as hell. The scenes with the men that follow are devastating, retreating to their behavior in a disquieting fashion. Bird isn’t here to play into a pre-existing narrative but the movie seems to conclude that even stepping outside of regular society, these guys don’t know how to do anything but play out behavior, and it’s not doing anything but shredding their insides. They’ve managed to find a thing that keeps them moving, but that’s not going to help too much longer. Who knows if it ever helped to begin with.
(originally posted in 2018)
- Sean Witzke