With its gorgeous widescreen compositions and sophisticated look at our American obsession, this stripped-down narrative from maverick director Monte Hellman is one of the artistic high points of 1970s cinema, and possibly the greatest road movie ever made.
“Two-Lane Blacktop” is a classic American road movie released in 1971. starring James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, and Laurie Bird, the film is known for its minimalist style, existential themes, and portrayal of the open road culture of the 1970s. The film is often regarded as a road movie that goes beyond the typical conventions of the genre. It explores themes of alienation, freedom, and the search for meaning in a vast and seemingly empty landscape. The characters are nameless and largely disconnected from society, living on the fringes and finding their identity through their cars and the open road.
The film follows two car enthusiasts, identified only as “The Driver” (played by James Taylor) and “The Mechanic” (played by Dennis Wilson), who travel across the American Southwest in a customized 1955 Chevrolet 150. They engage in street races and make their living by challenging other drivers to races and betting on the outcomes.
Their aimless journey takes a turn when they encounter a wayward drifter named “GTO” (played by Warren Oates), who drives a brand-new Pontiac GTO. GTO becomes obsessed with racing the Driver’s ’55 Chevy and insists on a cross-country race to Washington, D.C. The two cars, representing different aspects of American car culture, embark on a race with no set rules, reflecting the existential and nomadic nature of the characters’ lives.
Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker (played by Laurie Bird)
The sparse dialogue and lack of a traditional plot structure contribute to its unconventional and almost meditative atmosphere. The film’s title, “Two-Lane Blacktop,” refers to the two-lane highways that crisscross the American landscape.
Towards the end of the film, after a cross-country race, GTO picks up a pair of hitchhiking soldiers. He reflects on his most recent contest and reveals that he won his Pontiac in a race behind the wheel of a 150. “There’s nothing like… wiping out one of those Detroit machines,” he says. “That’ll give you a set of emotions that’ll stay with you. Those satisfactions are permanent.”
In that final disclosure, we see a nostalgic, even altruistic nomad looking for a protégé and some company on the open road.
What follows to end the film, as The Driver prepares for another drag race, the sound cuts out. He slams the gas pedal and the image slows, almost to a halt. The celluloid begins to burn up in front of us, as if caught on the projector. It then catches fire and the movie itself disappears.