Monte Hellman's 'Two-Lane Blacktop' Delivers Its Zen Koans Via Hot Rod

What is a car-racing movie with almost no car-racing footage? That’s but one of the Zen koans making up the greater enigma that is director Monte Hellman’s 1971 cult fave Two-Lane Blacktop, now out in a loving two-disc Criterion Collection edition.

The questions pile up quick: Is that patrician singer/songwriter James Taylor playing the nameless dirtball driver? (Yes, it is.) And is his mechanic buddy really Dennis Wilson from the Beach Boys? (Yes, oddly enough.) Why don’t they say anything when some strange girl (waifish Laurie Bird) climbs in the back of their stripped-down primer-gray ’55 Chevy street rod and heads off down the road with them? What’s wrong with Warren Oates’ character? What does it all mean?

Hellman made a specialty out of laconic explorations of masculinity (see also 1974's Oates-starring Cockfighter) and laconic is definitely the word for Taylor and Wilson’s characters, who barely say anything unless it’s about cars. Drifting across country from street race to street race with Bird’s character in tow, they run into Oates’ “G.T.O.,” a v-neck-clad logorrheic in Detroit stock muscle who might be a former test pilot, or just a compulsive liar. A series of almost accidental encounters turns into a cross-country race, but it soon becomes apparent that no one really cares about the ostensible stakes (pink slips); there’s more, and less, at issue here.

Taylor is no actor, but since he’s mainly required to convey distant inchoate assholeness, he doesn’t have much to mess up (seeing this performance makes it easier to imagine the avuncular JT as the degenerate junkie he once was). Wilson is just along for the ride, but Oates burnishes his Character Actor Hall of Fame plaque with every stroke. While there’s no real plot and no real “point,” Hellman captures a particular kind of existential Y-chromosome rootlessness to perfection.

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