NOTE: Parts of this review originally appeared in my wrap-up of the 2007 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival on indieWIRE.com
If you have never seen Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, get thee to a video store (if you can find one with the ultra-rare DVD) or scour the listings for a rep house playing it. I suppose you might be able to find a torrent, but only until you buy the upcoming Criterion two-disc DVD that Hellman is working on! This blog is anti-piracy. That’s right, as you might have read here or on indieWIRE.com, Hellman is shooting new docs for the project. No word on a release date, however.
Two-Lane Blacktop is a masterpiece of the sub-genre of the American road movie. There’s something particular to this specific section of the film world that separates it from road movies in general and Hellman’s 1971 film is, if you’ll pardon the bad and very obvious pun, king of the road movies. Musicians James Taylor and the Beach Boys Dennis Wilson star as The Driver and The Mechanic, a team traveling the country, earning money in illegal street races in their suped-up 1955 Chevy. Neither Taylor nor Wilson had acted before (and hardly since) but they’re both excellent performances, holding their own against veteran actor Warren Oates, as GTO, a man seemingly coping with a midlife crisis by tooling around the country in a Pontiac hotrod, well, GTO.
The minimalist shooting style and script is a perfect and direct response to the hero-worship bestowed by the critics and movie-going public on the bikers of Easy Rider and reflects on dual themes of alienation and freedom but isn’t even remotely dated. Themes addressed in this film are at least relevant now, considering we’re once again in an unpopular and un-winnable war, our personal freedoms are again being infringed by our government and the United States is still often divided along racial or geographical lines. In the South, Oates asks Wilson why he’s stealing local license plates and putting them on the Chevy and he says: “I get nervous around this part of the country.” The thing is, people still do. Long-haired California drag racers in the Deep South? “Say, you all wouldn’t be… hippies, would you?”