If the American road movie has popularly been about the freedom and progress that the road offers, Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop radically reverses that paradigm. Fixated on stagnation and loneliness in spite of the constant movement, the film introduces characters who drive to far-out corners of the United States merely for the hell of it, who spend their time searching aimlessly for new drag races and new car owners against whom they can assert their ride’s superiority. There are no feel-good undertones here, just the hypnotizing solitude and endlessness of the highway. A driver (famous singer James Taylor) and a mechanic (Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson), both unnamed, drive the kind of beat-looking but powerful ’55 Chevy that only a car freak could truly appreciate, and their time is consumed by driving to nothing in particular, racing a townie automobile aficionado, and then fixing the damage to do it all again. An end goal or purpose is never clear, and the Sisyphean ourobouros they have entered shows no signs of deteriorating.
Hellman displays the punchy gift of a minimalist in his establishing of this closed-off world of motors, tires and cement, starting the film on an enigmatic nighttime race scene that turns quickly into a getaway from the police. The details of this sequence – who they are racing, the simple geometry of the raceway, where they are, where the cops come from – are thickly obscured by the atmospheric wordlessness of the scene, the way that the roar of the engines and uncertain expanse of the dark road overwhelms any sense of comprehension or stability. Hellman cuts the scene into a methodical dance between shadowy eyes darting around the road and the rear-view mirror, tires gripping pavement, and speedometers flickering upwards.
It’s a spare, visceral vision of car racing that attempts to capture the feeling of this lifestyle rather than render narrative logic, and indeed Hellman continues to portray it in this abstract manner throughout the film, so that the real experience these outcasts seem to live for is exclusively a feeling, a mode of being, like a brief drug trip. In fact, for a film so intimately tied to this pastime, the actual car racing remains a minor sidenote in the film, a ghostly presence on the fringes of the day-to-day lifestyle which proves to be taken up more by uneventful driving, laborious gas station stops to fill up the tank and tend to the engine, and quiet side-of-the-road cafe breaks.
The film is so dedicated to capturing these in-between stretches of boredom and stasis in as much detail as possible that it winds up completely stripping away any of the glamor that might be connected to the social universe of car racing. As if to further remove it from prestige and authenticity, Hellman enters G.T.O (Warren Oates) to the mix, a suave poser named after his shining yellow Pontiac G.T.O (a more eye-catching and consumer-friendly muscle car than the Chevy). G.T.O passive-aggressively wages competition between the two cars, revving up his engine to pass them on a country road while claiming to various hitchhikers that they are the ones acting up. Finally at a southwestern gas station they arrange a cross-country race to Washington D.C. for pink slips after a tense, prolonged exchange of adversarial glances.
Hellman maintains a bizarre distance during conversational scenes such as these, shooting in long takes and letting action occur in the foreground, middle ground, and background all at once. For speaking to even be considered, aimless walking about and circling the cars must ensue to a point where each party has a firm sense of preconceived notions before opening his mouth. At one point, the driver and the mechanic roll through a crowded vehicle gathering late at night, Wilson robotically reciting the technical specs of each car before they stop to incite a race with the one they know will be most challenging. For them, life is a relentless compiling of practical knowledge and pursuit of competition.
Their well-groomed automobile savvy is countered by Oates’ desperate desire to appear tough and sophisticated. When he forcefully regales his passengers with the particulars of his Pontiac as cited in the car manual, one gets the sense that he doesn’t grasp any real working knowledge of these terms, only that he obtains pleasure from sounding esoteric and loaded. This artificiality extends to his personal life, which he mythologizes in many mutating shapes and sizes; at one point he’s an ex-military officer, another time he’s a man who abandoned his wife and daughter for life on the road, and later he’s the guardian of Taylor and Wilson. Slowly this role-playing transforms from pestering to deeply tragic and deformed, the vague ramblings of a dreamer without any clearly defined personality for whom the route to self-actualization is as endless and ill-defined as the path of the road itself. Oates, in his chameleonic cashmere sweaters and black leather driving gloves, is brilliant in the performance, spewing a hideous stench of self-righteousness yet also managing to convey an emotional volatility on display most movingly in a scene with a nameless hitchhiking girl (Laurie Bird) who has been traveling with Taylor and Wilson throughout the film. As she dozes off in the passenger seat, he kicks into a classic monologue about “getting away” and “living the simple life”, yet it’s clear that all he’s ever been doing is trying to get away from something internal that he is afraid to confront.
Speaking of the girl, she’s one of the many fascinating thematic ciphers in Two-Lane Blacktop, a mysterious figure searching for connection just as urgently as Oates but with none of the smug self-consciousness. Beautiful, directionless, and infatuated with the romanticism of the road, it’s as if she snuck out of the backdoor of a Godard film and wandered into Taylor and Wilson’s car only to be simultaneously unsettled and entranced by their blankness and social indifference. They barely register her stealthy entrance into the film in the background of a wide shot, failing to acknowledge her presence in the backseat when they return from a meal in a diner. Gradually however, they forge an unspoken interest in her, both battling quietly for her affections but never achieving anything close to a functional relationship. When she exits the film towards the end the same way she came in – her body vanishing into the background in another vehicle – the driver and the mechanic know it was bound to happen, that their endless silences broken up only by concise exchanges about technical matters would wear heavily on her and eventually bore her. Had she been willing to stick around forever without any change, they would have welcomed the idea, but like everything else in the world besides cars, she is ultimately disposable.
So the film, a mostly wordless character study written large across the canvas of the American countryside, concludes the way it began: anti-social loners scraping by just to keep driving and dreamers involving themselves in new experiences to add to their ever-growing mental database of fictional constructs. There are neither psychological epiphanies nor narrative satisfactions. In fact, the alleged “race” that the two cars embark on was essentially over before it even started. Stopping and starting as casually as any driver might on a long trip, the journey becomes more about routine, labor, and killing time than anything else, with the three men forming an unlikely camaraderie by the end. If there’s any hope to be found in this unnerving ode to meaninglessness and alienation, it’s in the rare coming together of these two different kinds of outcasts, the sharing of mutual goallessness. Never has a film so potently conveyed the spiritual vacuity of life on the road.