There is a certain category of movies I would call nerd-movies. Those are movies that embrace a particular topic, have characters who are really into that topic, and which treat the topic with respect. I find it fascinating when people are going all in on their interest and I like the idea of nerd-movies even if I do not always care for the topic.
“Two-Lane Blacktop” is a nerd-movie about racing cars. Not big industry race shows, but dudes who fix their own cars and go around racing as their big, all consuming interest.
Yet, maybe this is also a substance abuse movie…
Two guys, the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) drive around in their little wonder of a car. The shell of it is an old 1955 Chevrolet, derelict and worn, while the inside is an overpowered race car. This car is their entire content in life. The money they make by racing other cars are spent of gas, spare parts and some food. The movie does not even give them names, they are just the driver and the mechanic.
On the road they encounter two people, a girl, known as “the Girl” (Laurie Bird), a drifting hippie who tag along to anybody who will take her anywhere else, and a guy known as GTO (because he drives a Ford GTO, Warren Oates).
The girl is trying to break through to the guys and is not getting anywhere, even if the guys genuinely want to get through to her, but the car interest is so all-consuming that there is no room for her. She is just left on the backseat with the tools. Eventually the girl simply gives up.
GTO is more complex. He loves his car too, but his reason for being on the road seem to be a little different. We get the impression he is trying to get away from something. He picks up lots of hitch hikers and each of them he tells a new story. Also the guys get a few stories from him. It is also unclear where he is going, Miami, New York, Washington, Chicago, Mexico, Montreal. The destination does not really seem to matter, but he clearly has a chip on his shoulder and seems eager to prove himself.
The guys and GTO decide to race to Washington, betting their cars (their lifeblood, really), but none of them seem eager to actually finish the race. Instead there are lots of detours on the way.
The most striking thing about the movie is all these cars, the sound and sight of them and the exhilaration of driving them really fast. If you are into cares this would be a go-to movie for that alone. Beneath this there is a story of disconnect between people. None of these people are successful in reaching out for other people. Either they are incapable or just not interested enough. The most telling moment is when GTO starts on a story which for once may actually be the real one, the Driver asks him to shut up, GTO’s problems is not his problems. With that interest in other people, no wonder they are lonely.
There is an undercurrent indicating that despite their deep interest in cars, these people are wasting away their lives in pointless pursuit of something they are never reaching. It is exciting at first, but gets more and more sad as the movie progresses and even moves into David Lynch territory with surreal and abstract elements. The ending, the celluloid of the filmstrip simply burning away is telling.
Somewhere between a nerd film and an art film, “Two-Lane Blacktop manages to combine the two into something that works on both accounts. I am not that much into cars, but it is difficult not to feel the potency of these custom cars. Learning they have on the other side of 300 horsepower engines, makes may own VW Polo feel truly puny, and I can almost sense the intoxicating power these people must feel from their cars like a drug. Yet, like any drug it leaves you an empty husk when the rush has burned out.
I think it is a moderate recommendation from me. Better than I expected, but probably works better for some than others.