The last shot of Two Lane Blacktop is among the greatest last shots in history. The camera is in the empty back seat of the home-grown 55 Chevy, the Driver in the front seat. He’s taken his position on the stretch of asphalt, ready to roar in another race against another sucker who is going to lose to the mightily tuned machine underneath his ugly, dusty hood. And as he drives the sound cuts out and the image warps and then we see what’s happening is that the film itself is melting - have you seen film melt in a projector before? Get all yellow and brown and red and squirm and dissolve outwards from a hole of pure white light? - and it’s melting from inside the Driver’s head, and the whole frame is consumed and his race never ends.
Not that race, and not the cross-country race in which he spent half the film. Two Lane Blacktop is the most laidback racing movie ever made; it’s the story of two longhaired car freaks - the Driver (James Taylor, who has seen fire and who has seen rain) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys) as they drive along the back roads of the southwest, taking bets with local boys that their ugly, unwieldy car can beat any comer in drag races. Along the way they meet a Girl (Laurie Bird), a hitchhiker, and their paths cross with a motor-mouthed lonely man (Warren Oates) driving a shiny GTO from nowhere to nowhere. GTO and the boys get into a bet - whoever makes it from the southwest to Washington DC first will win the pink slips to both cars.
Instead of a high octane chase, the cross-country race devolves into an existential morass, one where the racers swap cars and chasing the Girl becomes more important than chasing the finish line. The Driver and the Mechanic say little; GTO won’t shut up. They reveal nothing, but neither does he - as the film goes on it becomes clear that nothing he’s saying is true, that none of the past he’s ascribing to himself truly happened. Or maybe it happened to someone else.
Taylor and Wilson are on the verge of being wooden, and the laconic nature of their characters is a blessing. We’re never inside them - we don’t know who they are, we don’t know where they’re from, we don’t know what they’re doing. When Taylor tries to deliver what constitutes a speech for the Driver it’s awkward, but that feels right - the Driver speaks not with words but with the rumble of his engine. Wilson, growing up in SoCal’s car culture (that his band helped enshrine forever), is comfortable with the Mechanic’s lines, many of which are about the car or about the weather.
It’s Warren Oates who gives the desperate life to the movie (aided by Bird, who committed suicide a few years after this film), finding the wounded heart of GTO, a man who glides down Route 66 looking for - and never finding - a connection. Oates is funny and sad, and his humanity provides a different tone that contrasts with the constant thrumming of the cars. In a car filled with extraordinary, legendary performances, this is one of his best.
The quartet drive through empty landscapes and stop at non-descript diners and gas stations. Director Monte Hellman doesn’t go with the grand vistas of America that you might expect in a road movie like this; his camera is often tight on the faces of drivers and passengers, and many of the landscapes he elects to show us are flat and featureless. The people met along the way have the sense of being real, actual humans, but they’re almost as bland as the road that passes peripherally by the camera. There’s an emptiness here, an emptiness that Hellman is looking at deep in the heart of America.
Two Lane Blacktop is a post-youth movie youth movie. It’s the movie for what happens after Woodstock and Altamont, the movie for a generation that marched on the Pentagon and dropped acid but didn’t stop the war or find internal peace. It’s a movie for an America that emerged from the 60s bruised and battered. No other country on Earth has a car culture like ours, and no other country could have made a movie like this. And no other filmmaker than Monte Hellman could have made this film; his minimalist filmmaking and his dead-eyed marksmanship at hitting the spot directly between exploitation picture and art film is what makes Two Lane Blacktop more than just another one of those quiet-slow road movies, more than just another post-hippy bummer.
I don’t know why Two Lane Blacktop is so gripping. Some of it is the film’s precision; what seems, on the surface, to be scruffy looseness is actually super-controlled editing. Hellman’s original cut ran over three hours, and he personally whittled it down to the final one hour, forty five minute runtime. Much of it is Oates, possibly the greatest character actor in history (and he has a terrific scene with another claimant to that throne, Harry Dean Stanton, who is playing a gay cowboy). Mostly it's because the movie is so cool, cool in a way nothing is anymore. It's cool like Brando and Dean, cool in a way that looks effortless but takes so much effort to achieve, a cool that seems like it doesn't care but it cares so much. Two Lane Blacktop is cool but it wants you to pay attention and hear what it's saying and follow along and take the trip.
And that ending. In a film that is naturalistic and minimalist - most of the music in the film is heard, tinnily, playing on radios - it’s a masterful moment of style that breaks the fourth wall, a moment with all the exhilarating power of Antoine Doinel looking at the camera at the end of The 400 Blows or Ethan Edwards in the doorway at the end of The Searchers. It’s a final shot that defines and encapsulates everything that went before, that sends the film careening into a breathtaking moment of almost magical realism, that makes the hairs stand up on your arms.
GTO: Well, here we are on the road.
The Driver: Yup, that’s where we are alright.
Two Lane Blacktop was a flop on initial release, but it made its mark culturally, becoming not just a cult film but a signifier film - you know that someone who has seen (and loves) Two Lane Blacktop is a good person, a likeminded type who gets it. Hellman's career never quite lived up to the promise of this film (or his Westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind), and Oates would go on to make some of the greatest movies of all time (Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia being a top contender for best ever). Laurie Bird, so strong here, dominating the silent Driver and Mechanic, was so fragile in reality - she took a handful of pills and died in boyfriend Art Garunkel's apartment.