“If I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m gonna go into orbit.”
Monte Hellman’s masterpiece is a tribute both to the American obsession with driving and to his own obsession with minimalist storytelling. In the late sixties Hellman made several “quickie” westerns for Roger Corman (The Shooting, Ride In the Whirlwind) whose narratives were as beautifully spare and weight-efficient as a dragster’s engine block. But in Two-Lane Blacktop he pushes this idea even further: he redlines it. It’s like The Cannonball Run scripted by Beckett.
Three nameless characters, who hardly talk, meet a fourth nameless character who never shuts up. They decide to race their cars across the country for pink slips. Non-actor musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson play the autistic gearheads; the incomparable Warren Oates is the fast-talking huckster who challenges them. It’s their hot-rodded ’55 Chevy 150 against his factory-fresh ’70 Pontiac GTO. The girl moves her allegiance from car to car and from driver to driver. They are all chasing after something they cannot define. But maybe, if they can drive fast enough, they can catch it. Or they’ll go so fast that they’ll abandon the race, transcend the sound barrier, the light barrier, and even the film projector itself.