Age has been kind to “Two-Lane Blacktop,” director Monte Hellman’s 1971 existential road-trip movie about two drifters drag-racing their way across America in a grey ’55 Chevy.
Once considered mainly a cool, indie cult flick following in the considerable ’70s wake of “Easy Rider” – a work perhaps most notable for casting hip musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in key roles – the film has grown in critical esteem as the years have raced by and now a spiffy Criterion Blu-ray edition provides testament to this lean, unpretentious picture’s classic staying power.
Roaming from the drag strips of Southern California to the back roads of the Deep South, the picture follows two pals, The Driver (Taylor) and The Mechanic (Wilson), as they cruise America’s byways in a souped-up Chevy hustling wagers on illegal races along the way. It’s a precarious lifestyle that guarantees bushes with blustery sheriffs and macho confrontations with boisterous local yokels.
In Arizona, they pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird), a feckless, vagabond hippie chick who practices free love, and as a raw love triangle forms the two buddies also take on a grizzled old wanderer named GTO (Warren Oates), a boisterous braggart who challenges the Driver and Mechanic to a race to Washington, D.C.
The sparse dialogue of Rudy Wurlitzer’s script and the spare, naturalistic performances by the musician-actors (especially the scarecrow-like Taylor channeling James Dean) give the film a raw, unschooled and haunting quality that’s hard to forget.
And Hellman, a freewheeling former protégée of low-budget guru Roger Corman, proves himself the ultimate maverick by abandoning all linear storytelling midway through the race and wandering off into a strange wonderland of Antonioni-esque imagery and existential noodling that feels entirely fitting of the times.
Criterion’s Blu-ray extras include two commentary tracks – one in which Hellman responds to questions about the production and one in which Wurlitzer analyzes the story. There are also interviews with cast members, most notably with Taylor talking about the acting experience. A round table of producers also discusses the brief post-“Easy Rider” period in which young filmmakers were afforded uncommon freedom to explore their visions. Also included are screen tests for Bird and Taylor, along with the film’s original trailer.
The most expansive extra features a rambling interview with Hellman recorded on a road trip through California, accompanied by a slide show on the restoration of one of the film’s ’55 Chevys and an insert booklet containing essays by Kent Jones and Richard Linklater.
- Dennis King