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On the Road to Nowhere
on October 5, 2002
The 1971 film "Two-Lane Blacktop" is arguably the best of the late 60s, early 70s existential road film genre (including "Easy Rider," "Vanishing Point" and "Electra Glide in Blue"). Director Monte Hellman's stark, at times unyeilding examination of American alienation is brilliant simply because of its refusal to pander to an audience undoubtedly looking for the commercial release of an exciting car chase.
There is a race in "Two-Lane Blacktop," though it seems to end almost before it begins. There are extraordinary muscle cars as well, including a souped up '55 Chevy contrasted with a new Pontiac GTO. But Two-Lane Blacktop is a character study, even though the characters are not people we would particularly like to know.
The three main characters, haunted lost souls void of identity and emotion, are played by James Taylor, Dennis Wilson and Warren Oates. Taylor and Wilson silently cruise the backroads of America looking for the next race in their 55' Chevy. They eventually meet Oates, a chattering, nervous man involved in some kind of middle-age crisis while picking up hitchikers in his GTO. These men decide to race cross country, but eventually lose interest.
Throw into this uneasy mix a young hitchiker played by Laurie Bird. She jumps back and forth between these three men, holding off their awkward advances, eventually realizing their emotionless lives are headed down an endless highway without destination.
"Two-Lane Blacktop" is a morose study of men perpetually lost on the backroads of a nameless American landscape. They are hovering ghosts, void of identity, forever searching for a meaning which cannot be found. There are no easy truths or answers in Hellman's complex odyssey. These men are trapped, their cars serving as rolling coffins, redemption seemingly around the next bend, inexorably moving further and further away.
The time period of the early 1970s and the scratchy period music moaning from the AM radio, combined with the faceless gas stations and roadside diners of numerous small towns, all contribute to the overall effect of Hellman's dark character study. "Two-Lane Blacktop" is one of the finest American films no one has ever heard of.