Film review: Two-Lane Blacktop

by David Larsen / 28 February, 2013
Two-Lane Blacktop bombed when it was first released in 1972, but it has slowly established itself as one of the great cult road-racing movies, writes David Larsen.
Two-Lane Blacktop film review
Two-Lane Blacktop: the road as its own destination.

‘They’re not for you. All they think about is cars.” Actually, the nameless pair of road-hounds under discussion here also think about sex, which is why they’ve picked up a nameless female hitchhiker, which is why a nameless rival driver is (metaphorically, at this stage) running them down. He’d like her to switch vehicles.

Everyone in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop is nameless, pointedly and emblematically so; and in fact I’ve just mentioned all the characters who have more than a single scene.

The film, which the Film Society is screening in most of the major centres over the next few weeks, bombed when it was first released in 1972, and you can see why; and it has slowly established itself as one of the great cult road-racing movies, and you can see why. It looks fabulous, it’s so deadpan cool that its occasional flashes of overt wit strike like smart-bombs through sheer unexpectedness, and it manages to give expansive life to the great road-as-freedom metaphor of American cinema even while turning it on its head.

The slowly dawning realisation that they were watching a film about existential paralysis is probably what poisoned the film for its original audiences, but it’s the best card in Hellman’s hand. He sets up a 3000-mile winner-take-all grudge race between two cars that, with all America’s roads to choose from, can’t seem to stop getting in each other’s way. Testosterone; engines revving; Fast Five, the Early Years. Except that our racers, who have very little to say to each other, keep stopping to say it. And to eat. And to wander round small towns.

It begins to seem as though they’re more interested in having an excuse to keep driving than in actually getting anywhere. The road as its own destination: when you’re on it, you’re always in the same place, and that place is nowhere much. And yet nowhere much seems a beguiling location. And so damn technicolour pretty.

Any of the Film Society programmes constitutes an embarrassment of riches, but they vary from region to region – I’m highlighting Two-Lane Blacktop because it screens early in the year in most areas, rather than because it’s the one film on any of the regional lists you need to see. They’re all films you need to see. If you can. I regret to report that the crown jewels of the Auckland programme, two never-released-on-DVD films from Léos Carax (maker of Holy Motors, one of the great delights of last year’s film festival), will not be screening across most of the country.

On the other hand, Terrence Malick’s Badlands – easy enough to find on DVD, but it belongs on the biggest cinema screen you can find – is playing in a good number of places, and dovetails rather nicely with Two-Lane Blacktop, being another early 70s non-road-movie road movie.

There are mini-seasons of French and Chinese cinema in most areas. The German mini-season is anchored by the Dreileben Trilogy, recent films from three different directors, loosely organised around a single central story. There’s a season of 1930s screwball comedy.

Your local film society: the film festival you get to go to every week.

TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, directed by Monte Hellman
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