James Taylor is The Driver
, a car-obsessed racer with stringy hair and a concentration that precludes conversation. He travels the backroads 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 hitchhiking Girl (Laurie Bird), whose presence breaks the tunnel-vision focus of the two men, they challenge a middle-aged hotshot, the garrulous G.T.O. (Warren Oates) to a cross-country race. 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. "How fast does it go?" asks The Driver, admiring G.T.O.'s car. "Fast enough," he answers. The Driver snaps, "You can never go fast enough." These are characters on the road to nowhere who can't work up enough speed to escape themselves. --Sean Axmaker
Cult film director Monte Hellman follows up his legendary westerns The Shooting
and Ride in the Whirlwind
with another sterling film, this time set on the paved highways of early 1970s America. Making their acting debuts, musicians Dennis Wilson and James Taylor play a pair of drag-racing drifters who battle against willing competitors all along the back roads of America, encountering a wild cast of characters. After stopping for lunch one afternoon, Taylor (The Driver) and Wilson (The Mechanic) discover a young woman in their back seat (Laurie Bird, credited as (The Girl). The newly formed trio continues to head east, and places a risky bet with Warren Oates after bumping into each other at a gas station. The first automobile to arrive in Washington D.C. is the winner. The prize: the loser's car (Taylor and Wilson drive a 1955 Chevy, while Oates pilots a 1970 Pontiac GTO). Strangely enough, rather than turning into a relentless fight to the finish, none of the participants seem too worried about picking up the pace. In fact, they act as if they're afraid of reaching their destinations, spurning an endless series of sidetracks that turns Hellman's film into a broad existential metaphor and cementing its place as one of 1970s Hollywood's bravest motion pictures.