Two-Lane Blacktop is a minimalistic story of two cars. One—a ’55 Chevy—is piloted by two practically silent characters dubbed The Driver and The Mechanic who have no existence outside of their pursuit of the “shut-down.” They’re terse, cold, and focused. The other is a 1970 Pontiac driven by a fop known as GTO. He’s the opposite of the boys in the Chevy: he’s garrolous, frivolous, and aimless.
Blacktop opens with the Driver and Mechanic traveling from one drag race to the next, racing for more money to race for more money to race; they ride in silence and speak in jagged car talk poetry. They see the world through their plexiglass windows and never hit the same town twice. One day an aimless hitchiker known as ‘The Girl’ gets in the backseat of their car, and without a word the three of them start a journey together.
As they roll down the highway from state to state, GTO and his bright yellow horse pass them several times—teasing them. At a gas station, they all decide to race cross-country to Washington D.C. for the cars’ pink slips. Along the way the race becomes less and less important until it’s just forgotten, and finally all that matters is who The Girl is gonna ride with, off into the sunset.
On the commentary track, director Monte Hellman says the film was widely unpromoted in America because it was deemed too subversive, and that in Moscow they wouldn’t screen it at all for the exact same reason—so here’s a film that was seen to undermine both the Capitalist and Communist paradigms. This is fundamental to understanding the film’s themes, which don’t adhere to any easy political ideology. In fact, at its core, the film’s a pure Romance—a tragic love story with no resolution, 0% eroticism, and homoerotic undercurrents. Competing with the Romance is a Mock Epic with none of the typical pleasures one expects in a Road movie.
In a 2006 piece for Bright Lights Film Journal, Tom Supten bemoans the “standardized critical terminology” that he sees behind the label “Existential”; in fact, while many films are mislabeled as Existential, Two-Lane Blacktop is the real deal—albeit in an angular way. It explores many of the concepts surrounding Existential philosophy, but it questions and subverts some of its core values. The title is central; things look different coming or going. There’s always a fresh angle, and the freedom that you’ve staked out today is at risk of becoming a prison of your own device tomorrow. As GTO says, “you just can’t stay with the same high forever,” but that’s just what the Driver and Mechanic are trying to do by wandering from race to race. Even the Girl is hopping from one high to the next, each failed romantic partner another race “won.” The difference is that she and GTO realize their crushing loneliness and try to do something about it. GTO’s tall tales and the Girl’s sexual liasons are analagous; each is a way for them to try and find some sort of connection, at any cost.
The film itself escapes the nihilism of its bifurcated Byronic Hero by putting its bets on Love. Although its characters never find peace, the movie’s strange open ending does leave the possibility of hope on the table, and that final image of the Girl—her bag lying forgotten in the parking lot—shows just how wrapped up in materialism the Driver/Mechanic still were. Maybe some day, down the road, she’ll find what she’s been seeking.