Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Rating: **
Review Date: 7/30/21
Cast: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, Warren Oates, cameo by Harry Dean Stanton

"No one is paying attention to my rear end."

The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) race their 1955 Chevy 150 against a 1970 Pontiac GTO (driven by Warren Oates) across the country to Washington DC. Along the way, The Girl (Laurie Bird) forces herself into their lives and makes a mess of everything. It's an existential counter-culture road movie in the vein of "Vanishing Point" (1971) and "Dirty Mary Crazy Larry" (1974) that illustrates the suffocating pointlessness of life and how women are ultimately the downfall of men. Whether you view that as misogynistic sexism or female empowerment is up to you. It's also a wonderfully raw and realistic slice of Americana, disaffected youth, and 70's muscle car culture.

James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are attractive, but lifeless zombies, drifting from town to town and living on whatever money they can make from local races. Their joyless lives are meaningless and they both seem to care more for their car than each other. Warren Oates plays a complicated character who is a pathological liar that loves to listen to his own voice. He's also constantly picking up hitchhikers (including Harry Dean Stanton as a gay cowboy) for reasons that aren't clear. Maybe he likes the company and wants someone to talk to? Or maybe he just likes showing off his car. While he drives a fast and powerful car, he's an inexperienced racer and his background and motivations are a mystery. Is he a criminal on the run? A traveling drug dealer? A paranoid middle-aged con-man looking for adventure and meaning in his life? A dangerous egotistical maniac? Who knows? But his presence is a constant source of uneasiness and distrust for the audience. Perhaps he represents "The Man" and everything that The Driver and The Mechanic are rebelling against and trying to conquer. And then there's Laurie Bird, who provides the alluring chaos factor. She's an independent drifter who floats from town to town, car to car, stranger to stranger, and bed to bed. She cares little for the men she hooks up with, and leaves as soon as she's conquered their hearts. The emotional turmoil that she stirs up triggers the film's downbeat climax as all of the characters confront each other at a roadside cafe. The ambiguous ending leaves you wondering what the film was all about. Does everyone lose? Does everyone win? Or does none if it matter at all?

The film has a strong documentary feel to it, with little dialog and a non-existent soundtrack. Taylor and Wilson are superb and their world-weary awkwardness feels completely genuine and real. They don't look like they're acting at all, and their blank stares and deadpan delivery are at the same time compelling and unsettling. Laurie Bird is pure sexual poison and gives an excellent performance as a dangerous, callous, and not-so-innocent young woman who knows how to get what she wants. Her reckless and desperate lifestyle mirrors that of Taylor and Wilson, except that she uses men while they use cars. Only Warren Oates appears to be acting, because his character is so layered and psychologically complex. The entire film is just weird, and the characters' actions and motivations are completely alien to me. You never know what's going to happen next, and it never makes any sense. But maybe that's the point. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns and nothing, except human behavior, is predictable. It's an interesting piece of art cinema and cultural examination, but the pacing is challenging and nothing substantial ever happens. However, it's that void that creates tension, because you keep EXPECTING something to happen, and it never does.