Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 31 January 2008
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Reviews Vanishing Point
In order to secure a greenlight for Two-Lane Blacktop, director Monte Hellman approached a handful of studios with an illustration of how many ways a camera could be mounted inside and around a car (he explains this in a supplementary interview on the Criterion disc). He had come up with twenty-four different setups. This is most remarkable because the two cars in the film – a souped-up 1955 Chevy and a factory fresh 1970 Pontiac GTO – have small interiors, one of which contains three passengers at most any point in the film. But in as much as this film features locations (it primarily details a race from Arizona to Washington, D.C.) and characters, it is more so about these two cars, which, in the 103-minute duration, become living vessels whose maintenance we come to comprehend, even care for.
This is the lasting charm of Hellman’s film, I think, that it is capable of engendering personalities for cars, and not merely for their utility or make. Although the road trip central to the film offers the very basic function of plot and scene sequencing, Two-Lane Blacktop is more a compendium of patiently composed sequences that pivot around and inside the Chevy and the GTO, orienting the viewer as a vicarious passenger. Midway through, as the travelers approach the Arkansas border in the early dawn, a sunrise occurs, and it is framed unconventionally from the back seat, the driver’s head obstructing the otherwise picturesque view. The cars’ features and details are explained at length, even if none of this bears much relevance to the overall scheme of things. The screenplay describes the Chevy – referred to as The Car – as such:
It is a ‘55 Chevy two-door. It is several shades of primer gray. There are wide M&H Racemaster tires. The front end is molded into one piece of fiberglass that tilts forward. When opened the engine is totally revealed. The engine is a 454-cubic-inch high-performance Chevy with aluminum heads. From the outside one can see the roll bar behind the two fiberglass bucket seats. Inside, the dashboard is bare except for Stewart Warner gauges, Sun Tach, Water Temp, Oil Press, and Amp Meter. There is a 4-speed transmission, Hurst linkage, and a Covico steering wheel. The backseat area is filled with a tool kit, spare parts, and two small, slightly rolled sleeping bags.
The characters aren’t even named.
Two-Lane Blacktop – opening with the roar of engines in the foreground – remains obsessed with the particularities of The Car, and with speed as well, as it is the film’s currency (the screenplay is punctuated regularly with mentions of specific m.p.h. for about every car therein). But these obsessions are largely fruitless; so much time is spent visualizing the preparation for a race that the outcome is always an afterthought—that is, if it’s even met at all. The bulk of the film proper concerns a cross-country race, and as this race progresses its momentum begins to relax. Despite this, the obsessions remain, the resolve to have the engine in perfect working order, to be equipped to race the perfect quarter-mile even if the opportunity to do so is not imminent.
The aforesaid race is engaged between The Car and a Pontiac GTO. The former is helmed by The Driver and The Mechanic, both around 23, who converse sparingly, and when they do it’s usually in regard to the engine. The GTO is driven by another man (referred to as GTO), considerably older, whose life is one of lonely extravagance, relayed in a kaleidoscope of perfect cashmere sweaters seen throughout the film. He describes essentially nothing about himself, picking up hitchhikers regularly and sharing with them fabricated stories. He seems to be motivated by a particular insecurity; he’s well kempt, and he has the latest, fastest car on the market, and it’s vibrantly yellow so you can make it out when it blurs past you on the road. He wants recognition. The Driver and Mechanic, despite their fifteen-year-old car and demeanor of indifference, pose a threat to him because they’re unimpressionable. They agree to race with the other’s car at stake. It’s a competition between men who aren’t particularly competitive, and what Two-Lane Blacktop pronounces in its visuals, limited dialogue, and willfully underdeveloped characters remains largely superficial, yet its silence and patience indicate much depth.
Witness to all of this is a young Girl, perhaps a late teenager, who invites herself into The Car without a word, and without a word of protest in either the Driver or Mechanic. Narratively she seems a bystander; she can’t drive a manual transmission, and probably doesn’t even know the type of car she’s riding in. Throughout the race she’ll ride in both the Car and GTO, acquainting a sort of cosmic bond with the other passengers, who have refrained from even asking her her name. There is lovemaking implied between her and both the Mechanic and Driver, and GTO seems to have a specific interest in her, probably because she listens to his stories without resistance. Both drivers begin to desire her companionship—the only time that the Driver actually races aggressively is when the Girl is ahead of him, riding with GTO, and it makes him drive like a maniac. He promises her a trip to Florida’s beaches after the race, and GTO promises a visit to New York; both are desperate for some other destination once the race is completed. The Girl’s not interested in any of it, and by the end of the film goes off with another driver, again without any verbalized invitation.
The Girl’s presence refracts aspects of the men that would otherwise remain latent. These aspects are not simply of sexuality but motivation—she’s someone to impress, someone to witness events when those participating are unconcerned with either congratulation or defeat. Admittedly or not, the Driver, Mechanic, and GTO each are interested in some sort of response because it establishes a sense of purpose. The Girl is the only audience to the race; without her, it is inconsequential.
Two-Lane Blacktop concludes, appropriately, with ambivalence. And it is at this point that its themes of apathy and desperation are most irresolute. The Driver/Mechanic and GTO, respectively, embody these themes, and after the departure of the Girl, they drive off, apparently, in different directions. Before GTO parts he’s sharing his latest fabrication with a pair of hitchhikers: how he won the car he’s driving in a cross-country race, in which he piloted a customized ‘55 Chevy—“But I’ll tell ya,” he says:
[…] there’s nothin’ like building up an old automobile from scratch and wiping out one of these Detroit machines. That gives you a set of emotions that stay with you. You know what I mean? Those satisfactions are permanent.
It is pure self-deception. He knows he has the slower car; it was the competition and not the prize that gave him purpose, however fleetingly. This is also true for the Driver/Mechanic, but they remain indifferent to the entire scheme (in the screenplay, it is revealed that they would not have lost the Chevy, as they submitted a fake pink slip for collateral). At the end, they’re seen going about a routine that is at this point familiar: the Driver strapping in to a racing harness, the Mechanic performing some last minute finessing to the engine. The final shot – an absolute stunner – finds The Driver in another drag race. The filmstrip slows to a stop, depriving him, and us, of a destination.