Two Lane Backtop (1971)

Two-Lane Blacktop(1971)
Dir. Monte Hellman
Starring: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Laurie Byrd, Warren Oates, etc.
101 minutes

You know how there are certain films where nothing seems to be happening, but you still end up riveted to the screen? Two-lane Blacktop is such a film. The story is rather simple. Two guys who like drag racing–one driver (James Taylor–yes, that one), the other a mechanic (Dennis Wilson)–travel across country. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker (Laurie Bird) and get into a long distance race with another driver (Warren Oates). Now this sounds like an action packed movie, but there aren’t exciting car chase scenes or very many dramatic moments for that matter. It’s a very quiet and deliberately paced film. The acting also matches the pace. Except for Warren Oates, the other characters also read their lines without much emotion. I would almost describe it as barely acting. Indeed, we know that Taylor is not an actor, and the other two main characters seem like non-actors, too. Yet, the approach worked well with the film as it helped create quiet, simple and natural mood. It’s definitely not actorly, which is also a big plus. The pacing and style of the film reminded me of films by Victor Nunez–Ulee’s Gold and Ruby in Paradise. Also, Charlotte Sometimes also has a similar style particularly in dialogue that seems to suggest more than what is said.

While the other actors don’t seem to be acting, the same can’t be said for Warren Oates, who turns in a very fine performance. Leonard Maltin’s Movie Review book refers to this as one of his finest performances that should have won him the Oscar. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I wouldn’t argue with it either. Oates, moreso than the other actors, really creates a complex and interesting character that we care about.

Besides the acting, I really appreciate the direction of the film, specifically the way the Hellman shows what happens without explaining what’s happening. We see characters behave in ways that may seem a bit unnusual, and the director doesn’t feel like he has to explain it. He seemed to sense that somehow the behavior is true, and trusted the audience to get this. I love that.

The dialogue is also like this. The characters don’t say how they feel, but make oblique comments that hint at what they feel. Sometimes there is a kind of double-entendre or metaphors that they use. Hellman also uses metaphors with cars, woman, and loneliness.

The film deserves to be in the 1001 FYMSBYD book, and while it didn’t make any of the top 100 film lists that I watched, it should have .

3 Responses to “Two Lane Backtop (1971)”

  1. Reid

    The film is also listed in the book, The 100 Best Films to Rent You’ve Never Heard of Of. The author mentions that Esquire put the film on its cover because it “evoked gasps of admiration,” but when it failed at the boxoffice declared it one of the worst films ever. The author, David Meyer, goes on to say,

    It’s neither a classic nor stinkeroo, but an eccentric, self-concious commentary on the youth culture of the early 1970s in the form of a road movie. To deliver both a satisfying road movie and insightful commentary is a tall order. Being the perverse, contradictory but irresistible piece that it is, Two-Lane fails and succeeds in both departments, continously.
    Monte Hellman…assumed the career-long role of an American middlebrow Antonioni: smart enough to realize that something profound happens when you slow the story down, but not creative enough to do much more than that.

    Later, Meyer says that Hellman proves that Antonioni didn’t have all the good ideas when describing the ending. He also says that, “No film in history ends as Two-Lane ends. No other film. Ever.”

    I liked the ending of the film, but I don’t know if I feel as emphatic as Meyer does, nor am I entirely sure what he means by the unique ending (wish he went into more).

    I do like the description of Hellman as an “American middlebrow Antonioni,” except I do think Hellman does some creative things with the slowed-down story. I also think it’s not just the slowing down films that make both this movie and Antonioni’s so profound. The spare acting style–almost non-acting in this film–that “shows” behavior more than “explains” and simple plot make both this film and Antonioni’s profound and about something larger than the actual plot and characters we see on the screen.

  2. Reid

    I just re-watched this recently. My rating: 85/100.

    I can say that Marc, Don, Joel, Jill and Larri wouldn’t like this. (Probably John could be added to this list). As for everyone else, I’m not sure if they would like this film, but since this is a high quality film, I would recommend it. (I think Kevin might have the best chance of liking this. Next, I’d guess Penny, Mitchell and Chris. Grace would be next. I have no idea about Tony.

    This is an American art film–American not just because it is made in America, but because it feels very American, too. This also could be one of the best American road movies.

    The post above compares Hellman to Antonioni, and I think that’s appropriate. If you like Antonioni, there’s a good chance you’ll like this. The characters and situations seem to more symbolic and much of the film’s “meat” comes through in the visuals rather than in the story or characters. It’s similar to a film like Ballast (another film I would call an “American art film”).

    The film is more abstract and conceptual rather than emotional of visceral–which is another way the film relates to Antonioni’s films. The characters are not people you care about (again, with one big exception). And there really isn’t a compelling story. What is there are ideas and moods, which I’ll discuss in the next section.

    In the original review, I describe the film as a film where “nothing seems to be happening, but you remain riveted to the screen.” Well, the first part is accurate, but I think “riveted” is too strong a word (at least I didn’t feel that way on the second viewing). This is a slow moving film and unlike Antonioni, Hellman doesn’t have a gift for drawing in and holding an audience’s attention by raising little questions in their mind that they want answers to. Furthermore, in some of the scenes, very little action seems to take place and knowing the purpose for these seems isn’t very obvious or clear. All this can make for a slow film.

    But there are several things that more than made up for this. First of all, there are certain visual aspects of the film that I just liked. There are little things like the look and vibe of James Taylor, Dennis Wilson and their ’55 Chevy–simple and gray, as opposed to flashy. They barely act in the film, but their screen presence was effective for me.

    Second, I loved the certain ideas behind the film, namely the way these two guys drive around the country drag racing to earn a living. In a way it felt like a modernized version of the Western. The Driver (Taylor) is the gunslinger looking for duels, while accompanied by a sidekick, the Mechanic (Wilson). They meet a damsel along the way (Laurie Bird). Cars replace guns and drag races replace gun battles. I liked both the romance and American feeling of this. I also liked the way the cars and driving across country seemed to represent the feeling of alienation, dissatisfaction and rootlessness.

    The acting (or more like non-acting) worked to reinforce this vibe. With most of the characters, there’s an overwhelming sense of ennui and lack of purpose. The three young characters (the Driver, Mechanic and the Girl) rarely express any emotion; they just seem tired, apathetic and unhappy. In contrast, GTO (Oates) is almost loquacious and definitely not stoic. He’s also a lot older than the other three. Nevertheless, he’s also dissatisfied and alienated.

    It’s this mood of alienation and dissatisfaction that pervades the whole and ends up being largely what the film is about, imo. The anti-establishment and establishment both feel this way, and the fact that many people can relate to this sense of ennui is what gives the film its power. Indeed, as I watched this I thought the characters had similarities to many Gen Xers–or at least I think a lot of Gen Xers could relate to the film.

    Here are some other interesting metahpors/symbols:

    1. The Driver and GTO decide to race across the country, but they form a sort of bond while the race occurs. For example, the mechanic checks GTO’s car and says that he needs to get new parts. Together they go to another town to get the car fixed (i.e. the Driver and Mechanic don’t just leave GTO and continue the race). In a way, the film could indicating that the old and young people have are in the same situation, and that they would be better off helping each other, although the film is not that preachy and corny. Perhaps, just seeing them interact in a somewhat amiable way makes the simple point that they are in a similar situation.
    2. The Driver and Mechanic go from town to town, race for money as a way to make a living. Drag racing could be thought of as a kind of “rat race.” In other words the driver is driven to win these races (it’s one of the only things he expresses any emotion for; fixing the car is the only thing the driver and the mechanic ever talk about, too)–races that are largely meaningless, except to earn them money. So these races could be seen as a critique on the emptiness of materialism and a consumerist society. The final scene also reinforces this idea. We see the Driver driving driven to win and then the film stock burns out–i.e. this type of life will lead to death. (Again, the film is not this heavy-handed.)
  3. Reid

    I recently re-watched this, and I’m going to comment on the film before reading my previous reviews/comments.

    • I’d probably give this an 81/100 on this viewing.
    • I think one deficiency in the film is Laurie Bird’s performance. She has the right look and even the right “vibe,” but there’s something lacking. The same applies to James Taylor. There’s a flat quality to both performances, which is appropriate on one level because the characters are emotionally flat, in a state of ennui. Yet, a big part of the film involves the way Bird’s character disrupts the the male characters. It works fine with the GTO character (Warren Oates), but not so much with the Driver (Taylor). I didn’t quite believe there was something emotional or “chemical” between them.
    • The characters reminded me of individual ships out in the open ocean. I imagined the situation in the film Waterworld. They cross paths and sort of interact and then go on their way. There’s a sense that they’ll always be isolated and alone.

    I still think this is a good movie.

    (I read most of my earlier comments.)

    In 100 Great Movies You’ve Never Heard Of, the author, David Meyer, mentions that how terrific and unique the ending is. It is a very good ending, although I don’t know how unique it is. Indeed, I’m pretty sure there is another movie that ends with the projector lamp burning the film stock. (Was that Easy Riders?) Personally, I think I would have liked a slow fade. I did like cutting off the audio and slowing the film down.

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