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Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

James Taylor (in his acting debut) is The Driver – a car-obsessed racer with stringy hair and a concentration that precludes conversation. He travels the back roads of rural America with his buddy, The Mechanic, (Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys), an equally obsessed lost soul at home only in the car or under the hood.

They have no names, only designations, and no life outside of their gypsy existence, riding the unending highway in their souped-up ’55 Chevy from race to race.

After picking up a hitchhiker – The Girl (Laurie Bird), whose presence breaks the tunnel-vision focus of the two men – they challenge a middle-aged hotshot, the garrulous GTO (Warren Oates) to a cross-country race to Washington DC.

Filmed in just eight weeks, Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop is the most alienated evocation of modern America ever made, an almost abstract study in dislocation and obsession set against a vague landscape of roadside diners and rest stops.

Taylor and Wilson deliver appropriately blank performances, only expressing emotion when The Girl sparks jealousy between them.

Oates is a glib dynamo constructing a new persona in every scene as if trying on characters to play as he ping-pongs between the coasts.

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“How fast does it go?” asks The Driver, admiring GTO’s shiny orange Pontiac. “Fast enough,” he answers. The Driver snaps, “You can never go fast enough.”

The film ends in a cinematic flourish: as The Driver prepares for another drag race, the sound cuts out. He slams the gas pedal and the image slows, almost to a halt.

The celluloid begins to burn up in front of us, as if caught on the projector. It then catches fire and the movie itself disappears. Roll credits.

The Driver
James Taylor
The Mechanic

Dennis Wilson
The Girl

Laurie Bird
GTO

Warren Oates

Director
Monte Hellman

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