Chris Morris 12/20/2007
In one critical scene in Two-Lane Blacktop, Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” is heard in the background. Its famous refrain runs, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Therein lies the core of Monte Hellman’s intimate, artfully photographed road movie about liberty, competition, friendship, and commitment.
Its archetypal characters bear no names. Two taciturn dragsters, the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), scour the countryside in a scarred, souped-up ’55 Chevy. They pick up the Girl (Laurie Bird) on the road. Somewhere outside Los Angeles, they encounter an aimless yet aggressive nomad (Warren Oates) piloting a new canary-yellow muscle car, who challenges them to a race to Washington, D.C., with pink slips as the prize. They roll. Everything changes.
For this deceptively simple yet moving drama, director Monte Hellman – like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, a graduate of Roger Corman’s B-movie factory – cut across the country from L.A. to Memphis, shooting in sequence and improvising as he went. He drew understated, nuanced performances from singer-songwriter Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Wilson, who bring rock-star charisma to their roles, and first-time actress Bird. Oates equals his devastating work in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, delivering a motor-mouthing mix of braggadocio and vulnerability. And the Chevy and Pontiac G.T.O. attain personalities of their own as they rumble across the wide screen.
Two-Lane Blacktop was a flop in its day. Maybe people were expecting an action picture about drag racing. Instead they got an introspective meditation about failed seekers in an age of seeking. As a portrait of America in the dimming of the ‘60s, it’s as evocative and sharply framed as a Robert Frank photo of a slab of superhighway.
Drag racing east from L.A. in a souped-up '55 Chevy are the wayward Driver and Mechanic (singer-songwriter James Taylor and the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson, in their only acting roles), accompanied by the tagalong Girl (Laurie Bird). Along the way, they meet Warren Oates's Pontiac GTO-driving wanderer and challenge him to a cross-country race - at stake: their cars' pink slips. Yet no summary can do justice to the existential punch of Two-Lane Blacktop. Maverick director Monte Hellman's stripped-down narrative, gorgeous widescreen compositions, and sophisticated look at American male obsession make this one of the artistic high points of 1970s cinema, and possibly the greatest road movie ever made.
- Starring: Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Rudolph Wurlitzer
- Format: Color, Dolby, Widescreen
- Language: English
- Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
- Number of Discs: 1
- Rating: R
- Label: The Criterion Collection
- Release Date: 01/08/2013
- Run Time: 103 minutes
- Catalogue #: 414
- Restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised by director Monte Hellman, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- Alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack, supervised by Hellman and presented in DTS-HD Master Audio
- Two audio commentaries: one by Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders and one by screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer and author David N. Meyer
- Interviews with Hellman, actor James Taylor, musician Kris Kristofferson, producer Michael Laughlin, and production manager Walter Coblenz
- Screen test outtakes
- Performance and Image, a look at the restoration of a ’55 Chevy used in the movie and the film’s locations today
- Color Me Gone, photos and publicity from Two-Lane Blacktop
- PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones; appreciations by director Richard Linklater and musician Tom Waits; and a reprint of the 1970 Rolling Stone article “On Route 66, Filming Two-Lane Blacktop,” by Michael Goodwin