Originally published in CTEQ: Annotations on Film included in Metro no. 109, 1997, pp. 47-8. Republished with the permission of the author.
Two laconic young men (let’s call them the Driver and the Mechanic) are heading east across Southern USA. Their automobile is a nondescript 1955 Chevrolet, but a glimpse of its innards reveals a lovingly fashioned and tended supercharger. A young woman hitchhiker (the Girl) joins them. On the same route is a loquacious older man (30 going on 40?) driving the latest design, a 1970 GTO Pontiac (call him GTO). Sizing each other up at a roadside station they agree to a long distance race, staying on country roads (“less heat that way”).
The Driver and the Mechanic are a team, they converse in restricted codes, Beneath their graceless, undemonstrative manner they are dedicated… to what? Lifestyle? The Car? Something less tangible? You watch the movie, you feel it, you name it. The Car is their source of income and the beneficiary of most of their outlay (“300 driving bread, 20 to spend”). They stay on the move, encountering parochial hot rod groups ready to wager on a contest – “I’ve got another squirrel to run” (Rudy Wurlitzer, the author of this modernist rhapsody, plays a squirrel in an early scene). The Car gets them where they’re going, but in a deeper sense it is where they’re going.
The Girl has no commitment, no destination (“That’s cool. I’ve never been east”). In the parlance of the ’60s, she’s “free” – free means having nothing left to lose. Later in the story she transfers wordlessly (another restricted code) from them to a youthful bikie.
The compulsively genial GTO drives alone but he needs company to download his tall stories. As he goes through a succession of passengers (“You oughta see what I’m pickin’ up on the road – one fantasy after another”), he reels off a string of potted autobiographies, all colourful, all different. Are any of them true? I’m inclined to believe one – the only one he tells when he’s not at the wheel and not blustering. When he picks up his final passengers he tells a story which idealises the Driver and the Mechanic; he sees them as embarked on an heroic quest, and he has become their bard.
So this is director Monte Hellman’s epochal touchstone: four lost souls and two archetypal automobiles – a total of six freaky bugs – on the backroads of redneck country (“Colour me Go, baby!”), an open ended contemplation of the Dreaming of America (“That’ll give you a set of emotions you can live with… those satisfactions are permanent”), austerely classical in form, utterly modern in sensibility, rich in subtext and topical reference.
You’re either in this picture or you’re out of it – which may help explain why it did the worst opening week on record at Melbourne’s Albany Theatre. Performances apart, Hellman’s film is so unmannered, so cool, so… existential that the cars are featured in the main cast, but there is no credit for production designer – it seems they just shot with what was there. And that ending – sublimity!… Wait for it.
Two years earlier Easy Rider (1969) established the road movie as a commercial genre. Two-Lane Blacktop raised it to a transcendental art form. Since then Hellman has been mostly unemployable and three of the four leads have met untimely deaths. As the personal, not critical, impression of one who has seen a lot of movies and was in his late 30s when this one came out, I want to say that no other dramatic illusion has gripped my sense of reality more firmly or released my dreaming more abundantly.