Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) [Midnight Movie]

If you’re looking for a high-octane chase movie like the original Gone in Sixty Seconds, Two-Lane Blacktop isn’t the movie you’re after. There’s a drag race at the beginning of the movie which is cut short by cops, a short drag toward the end of the movie, and a drag at the very end of the movie that’s cut short by the filmmakers themselves (or their lack of a million-dollar budget). The final destination’s a little too avant-garde for my tastes, but the trip through post-60s America just about makes up for it. 

Real-life musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson play The Driver and The Mechanic dispassionately, as if they’re auditioning for 2001: A Space Odyssey. While I appreciate what they did here I almost wish they took a backseat role to the mean ’55 Chevy their characters drive, which seems to be the real star of the film for the first twenty minutes or so. We get a glimpse into the boys’ street racing lifestyle shortly before they pick up a hitchhiker who’s simply named The Girl.

The Girl is played by model Laurie Bird, who probably would have gone on to become a household name if she hadn’t died at the age of 25. She only appeared in two other movies, one of which was Annie Hall, the other of which was the director’s follow-up, Cockfighter. Like Blacktop, it also featured Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton.

Oates’ character is called G.T.O., because that’s what he drives, and he likes to pick up hitchhikers so he can tell them his life story. Yet G.T.O. has a different story for each of his hitchhikers and we only get a hint of his real identity when he briefly ends up drunk in the passenger seat of the Chevy. Early on in the movie, The Driver and The Mechanic goad G.T.O. into racing across the country for pink slips, but G.T.O. is so unsuited for the race that the Chevy drivers frequently pull over to let him catch up. It’s no fun for them to get a huge lead on the G.T.O.

What Oates has done here is something quietly nutty and often humorous. He’s a big reason to watch the movie, which might be disappointing to anyone watching Blacktop for the thrills. Go into it expecting more Easy Rider than The Fast and the Furious and you’ll probably like it. I picked up the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, but I wouldn’t have been terribly disappointed had I settled for the much cheaper DVD version… it just doesn’t take much advantage of 5.1 sound and HD.

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