Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Two-Lane Blacktop

Wow, this is probably the easiest a review has come to me in a while, going from start to end in a couple hours with the TV on for half of it. My usual method is grabbing an hour or two on the bus rides to and from work, so just sitting down and writing one is a novelty.

Of course, it's probably easier to ramble on about what you figure a film's philosophy is rather than actually break down whether or not it's actually a good film and why. But I figure movies like Two-Lane Blacktop resist that anyway; it's uninterested in plot or really a whole lot of character development. Director Monte Hellman just needs to keep things interesting enough to keep the audience's attention, and he does a fine job with that.

Two-Lane Blacktop

(out of four)
Seen 7 January 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Staff Picks)

Two-Lane Blacktop is an oddity, no question about it. It stars two musicians in their only acting roles, playing characters without names or much in the way of dialog. It's a strange, abstract experience - and art-house picture disguised as a grindhouse flick.

In California, there's a pair of car lovers drag-racing in their custom 1955 Chevrolet. The driver (James Taylor) and mechanic (Dennis Wilson) know it inside out, and are able to win races in part because their fifteen-year-old ride doesn't look like much. They opt to head east, getting on the bad side of a middle-aged man in his new Pontiac GTO (Warren Oates), whom they decide to race cross-country to Washington DC with their pink slips as stakes. They also pick up a teenage girl (Laurie Bird) who, as any girl introduced in this situation is wont to do, will throw the balance of these two men off.

Like many films set on the open road, Two-Lane Blacktop is as much about the idea of freedom that it represents as it is about its characters - in this case, probably more so. The history of The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl, and "GTO" aren't important; in fact, if they were individuals it might undermine the film's message: To be truly free, you have to be willing to let go of everything. Not just material possessions, but attachments to other people, and to your own history.

GTO doesn't have much trouble with the latter part. Every time he meets a new person, he spins a different version of his life story. Maybe the first is true, but he contradicts it right away, refining it or changing it wholesale with bits he picks up from the environment - while throwing one male hitchhiker out of the car for getting a little too close, he drops little bits of innuendo with the next. Oates manages the right combination of bluster and patheticness; he puts a lot of pride in his car and likes to speak authoritatively, but underneath he feels a need to be accepted. He won't change his persona once he's introduced himself to someone, and his attempts to win over the Girl, young enough to be his daughter, are kind of sad.

He's doomed, of course, because The Girl knows how to be unattached from the very start. We first see her walking out of a camper and settling into the Chevy without introduction, and she eventually moves between the Mechanic and Driver with ease. She's chattier than they are, but just passing the time. It's a shame that Laurie Bird would only appear in two other films before quitting acting; she is nigh-perfect as The Girl, playing her as not especially knowledgeable or wise, but nevertheless the embodiment of the film's idea of freedom.

The Driver and The Mechanic are a perfectly matched pair to start out; The Driver at one point states "you can never go fast enough" and The Mechanic knows every inch of their custom car by heart. They work together seamlessly whether in a race or at a service station, barely seeming to confer even when there's a complicated scheme coming up. Jealousy and envy rear their ugly heads when The Girl is introduced into the equation; for all their talk of just going where the road takes them, they each have a little trouble with the other having The Girl or The Girl having the other, depending on the moment. Taylor plays The Driver as quicker-tempered, while Wilson's Mechanic is more detail-oriented. Despite neither apparently having other acting experience, they still make for compelling characters.

Somehow, director Monte Hellman knew what to do to get just the right notes out of his three first-time actors (Oates was a frequent collaborator); they all give matching natural performances. He also has a real knack for photographing the back roads of America and staging the drag races so that they're fast and exciting, but also dirty and far from glamorous. He edits his own film, and paces things so that the silence from his leads never seems oppressive or unnatural.

He's also clever with the ending; although it may seem that the film just stops without reaching the previously agreed-upon endpoint, the important lesson has already been given five or ten minutes earlier, and while the end of the film may frustrate some, the message is that you've got to let go of everything - including expectations.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with one other review

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