(Criterion, 1971) D: Monte Hellman, w/ James Taylor, Warren Oates. Rating: NNNNN; DVD package: NNNNN
Here’s what two-lane blacktop doesn’t have: a beginning, a middle, an end, a backstory, big moments, thrilling car race sequences, contrived conflict, studied hipness, professional actors (except Oates and Harry Dean Stanton) and the sentimental, romantic attitude toward the road you find in Easy Rider.
What it does have: a solid premise – a cross-country road race – that promises one thing and delivers another, characters made fascinating by their unconsciously revealed conflicts, powerful small moments that are all subtext and a near-documentary approach to shooting that takes advantage of the cast’s inexperience, capturing the boredom and spaciness of long road trips and using them to evoke a sense of existential doom.
It’s slow and minimalist, but it’s not boring. There are no long stretches of nothing happening to indicate the ennui of the road. Monte Hellman’s pacing is razor-sharp; his scenes are always pointed and they last just long enough. His compositions seldom call attention to themselves, but they’re always graceful.
James Taylor as The Driver and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson as The Mechanic look right and move right and say nothing that is not purely functional. By contrast, Warren Oates, in a great performance, never stops talking. The contrast creates a riveting effect.
The extras package is outstanding. Hellman and Taylor reunite for a long conversation, and Hellman has good making-of stories.
The real treat, though, is screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer’s commentary. He and writer pal David Meyer discuss philosophy, the movie’s use of language, the myth of the road in America and more.
Extras Disc one: Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders commentary, Wurlitzer and Meyer commentary. Widescreen. English audio and subtitles. Disc two: Interviews with Hellman, Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, producer and production designer; car restoration doc. Widescreen. English audio. Booklet: complete screenplay, essay.