Two cars race cross-country in a winner-take-all battle to the finish! It's a plunge into the grease-stained heart of America! That's all true of the 1971 road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, but only the film's basic elements lend themselves to movie-trailer-friendly sentiments. Charged with shooting a story about a souped-up '55 Chevy racing a factory-fresh Pontiac GTO cross-country, director Monte Hellman might have had a drive-in hit on his hands if he hadn't thrown out the original screenplay, replaced it with a script by cult novelist Rudolph Wurlitzer, and filled it with the hazy feeling familiar to anyone who's ever felt that somewhere along the open road, they've lost something they'll never get back.
Then a still-emerging singer-songwriter dabbling in acting, James Taylor plays "The Driver," a man never really comfortable unless he's behind the wheel of his '55. "The Mechanic" (Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson) sits by his side. They need no other names; they live in a world where you are what you drive. Traveling through the Southwest, they meet "GTO" (Warren Oates), a lost soul whose knowledge of cars pretty much ends with their ability to travel quickly away from anywhere he doesn't want to be. Also along for the ride: "The Girl" (Laurie Bird), a possibly underage drifter who slips into the backseat of Taylor and Wilson's car without much notice, then starts to slow the journey down with the unspoken threat that she might leave.
Oates agrees to race Taylor and Wilson to Washington D.C., but the race never really gets going. When Oates runs into some mechanical difficulties, his competitors lend him a hand. Why? The film never answers that, or most other questions. In one feature on this fully equipped set, Hellman refers to the plot as taking place almost entirely in subtext. But picking up on the tension Bird creates between her new companions and the loneliness beneath Oates' good-time exterior requires little reading between the lines. Hellman gives viewers plenty of time to study every detail, dwelling less on action than on quiet, small-town vistas, rundown diners, and forgotten stretches of Route 66. Where most boys-with-cars movies pop with the love-of-the-open-road energy of Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run," everyone from Two-Lane Blacktop could have stepped prematurely out of Darkness On The Edge Of Town or The River. Driving has given way to drifting, but they don't really know any other way. The film's famous final shot feels inevitable. The road goes on forever, but that doesn't mean there's anywhere left to go.
Key features: Two commentaries and Wurlitzer's script, filled with scenes filmed but cut from the movie.