Every time I watch Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, I am of two minds about it. On one hand, it’s simplistic to the point of nothingness. There’s two young hippies (James Taylor and Dennis Wilson), they alcoholic messed up rival (Warren Oates), a young runaway (Laurie Bird), fast cars, and the road. Lots of cars and road. They are the real characters. The plot is simple. Taylor and Wilson drive their 55 Chevy around the country looking to make money racing it. They run into the insecure mess that is Warren Oates. They bet their pink slips on a race from New Mexico to Washington, DC. Then they drive. But the race doesn’t matter. They stop to help each other. They get sidetracked. The movie ends before anyone even gets to Washington. Because it doesn’t matter. The car and the road are all that matters. The characters are archetypes. They aren’t even named. The girl kind of wants to sleep with all the characters but only actually does with Wilson. Then she runs off with someone else because cars are boring. All the three men are true American males, two of the young, virile, silent type; the third of the independent functional alcoholic type.
But ultimately the film works really well despite what would seem to tank it. The existential adrift America is at the core here with the core American values of cars and driving and masculinity up against a society that hasn’t allowed these men to accept the equally core American values of stability, work, and family. This is a hippie film at its core rather than a New Left film. Politics are irrelevant and the individual striving for whatever you need is at the forefront. A film that really could only have been made in the early 70s and it’s a great document of the time’s mentality.