Eureka Entertainment // 1971 // 103 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // December 15th, 2011
"If I wanted to bother, I could suck you up my tail pipe."
Two-Lane Blacktop is a movie that, by all rights, shouldn't work, being -- on the surface, at least -- a blatant attempt to cash in on the unexpected success of Easy Rider.
Hoping to ape the success of Dennis Hopper's iconic movie, film studio Universal offered a handful of directors a $1 million budget and final cut to do their thing. Monte Hellman (The Shooting) took the money, and, against the odds, turned in one of the greatest and most enduring cult movies of all time.
Eureka's release of Two-Lane Blacktop (Blu-ray) (Region B) does the film proud, with a handsome audio-visual presentation, and a clutch of top quality extras.
Driving their souped-up '55 Chevy, The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) travel Route 66 in search of other like-minded individuals to race the lonely highways. Throughout their journey they frequently pass the middle-aged driver of a brand new GTO (Warren Oates, In the Heat of the Night), which develops into hostility. Finally coming face to face, the three men agree to a race to prove who has the better car, with each man putting his car's pink slip up as a prize.
With Two-Lane Blacktop, we have a film that delivers unequivocal proof that it is the journey, not the destination, that's important. This is, on initial inspection at least, an extremely lean film with seemingly very little of substance to it. Indeed, it is easy, and understandable, to see why many viewers would discard the movie after their first viewing, citing a lack of incident -- not to mention the total lack of a satisfying conclusion -- as the reasons for not wanting to return to it. More patient viewers, however, are likely to find that first viewing of Two-Lane Blacktop a little frustrating, but no less exciting. For although the simplicity of the narrative will suggest a hollow film to some, others will strive to understand that emptiness, and look to find meaning in it.
Though sharing familiar traits with other road movies, Two-Lane Blacktop proves to be an oddly existential experience. Everything about the film seems designed to force the viewer to garner their own meaning from it, something made clear in the way characters are presented. There are no names here, only descriptions: The Mechanic, The Driver, The Girl, and GTO. Of these, only GTO offers any kind of background, but all in truth lack roots, and seem destined to travel the vast planes of America with no real purpose beyond their basic need to drive. Theirs is an endless cycle, and it is hypnotic to watch.
The race that the group partakes in is like nothing seen before or since. Considering that each driver puts his car's pink slip on the line, there's an alarming lack of urgency to the ensuing cross-country dash. Each driver takes a leisurely approach to the race, and both seem determined to help the other out when they find themselves in a bind. Perhaps it is the kindred spirit they share, or maybe a longing for companionship in what appear to be lonely existences, but neither The Driver nor GTO shows any real concern for winning the race. In fact, GTO, despite seemingly being the more competitive man, frequently stops to pick up hitchhikers who only serve to slow him down further. The suggestion that these men are in search of some kind of human interaction is borne out during these sequences. There's a loneliness to these characters that informs their almost self-destructive lifestyle, and these small interactions seem crucial to their continuation -- particularly GTO. One scene sees GTO assist an elderly woman and her granddaughter by taking them to a local cemetery. Despite this slowing him down considerably, GTO seems to find solace in the good deed he does, even going so far as to wait outside the graveyard to take them back home. These short interactions prove to be vital to better understanding GTO, and, in turn, the film.
The role of The Girl is also noteworthy. Bird plays The Girl as a blank canvas, changing her mind and direction with ease due to her lack of connection to anyone or anything. All three men are drawn to her, and, in part down to her free spirit, both The Driver and GTO seem to see her as a means of escaping their never-ending journey.
Visually Two-Lane Blacktop is as laid back as the film's pacing, with long stretches of road and rundown towns being the primary backdrops. This further adds to the almost Western-like feel of the movie, and casts the protagonists as cowboy-like figures, roaming aimlessly from town to town, looking only for just enough money to continue their seemingly endless journey.
Two-Lane Blacktop is a movie that just oozes cool ,and a large part this is down to the performances of Wilson and Taylor. Both men undeniably benefit from the minimalist dialogue, yet are remarkably assured in the roles of The Mechanic and The Driver. Warren Oates is the standout as GTO. His character, initially at least, seems to be the most grounded, yet as the film progresses, and he picks up different travelers, he makes changes to his background story that suggest he is just as rootless as his two younger rivals. There is something desperately sad about GTO; his desire to escape his current life, and run away with The Girl, is deeply affecting.
Coming to Blu-ray for the first time anywhere, Two-Lane Blacktop features a gorgeous 2.35:1 1080p transfer. There's an excellent level of detail throughout what is a remarkably sharp picture. Colors maintain a natural look, and black levels are generally solid. There is a non-invasive level of grain that sits over the image. Considering the film's age and budget, the print is in remarkable shape and only falters during one or two extremely dark scenes where the image loses a great deal of its clarity. Viewers get three audio options when playing the movie. The first, and my preferred option is the original mono soundtrack. Dialogue is clear, and the car engines roar beautifully. Next up is the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround option, which certainly offers a roomier mix, but nothing truly spectacular. Finally there is a music and effects only track.
Director Monte Hellman teams up with producer Gary Kurtz for an excellent commentary track. Due to the infrequent use of dialogue throughout the film, the track isn't too intrusive, and so doesn't interfere with one's enjoyment of the picture. "On the Road Again" (43 minutes) features Hellman and his film students as they revisit shooting locations from the film. "Somewhere Near Salinas" (28 minutes) sees Hellman talk to Kris Kristofferson about the use of his song, "Me and Bobby McGee" on the film's soundtrack. "Sure Did Talk To You" (23 minutes) has producer Michael Laughlin, production manager Walter Coblenz, Jared Hellman, and Steve Gaydos reminisce about their experiences on the film. Also included are "Screen Tests" of both James Taylor and Laurie Bird (clocking in at a combined time of 26 minutes), which features interview footage by A.J. Solari, who has a small role in the film. Finally the film's theatrical trailer is included. The retail copy of Two-Lane Blacktop) also promises a thirty-six-page booklet, which will include rare production imagery.
From its two unlikely leads to its inception, Two-Lane Blacktop just shouldn't work. Yet thanks to Hellman's remarkable vision, it is one of the definite cult movies. This is a film that can be enjoyed on several levels, is impossible to forget, and rewards viewers by giving back what they put into it. It's highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Not Rated