TWO-LANE BLACKTOP

Review by Dave Kehr

New York Times, December 18, 2007

This Monte Hellman 1971 road movie — perhaps the definitive example of the genre — has now come full circle. Oversold on its first release, when Esquire magazine printed its screenplay under the title “Movie of the Year,” the film was a commercial disaster but has continued to build an underground reputation. This month it was released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, which puts it as close as any movie can come to joining the official canon.

A movie with very little talk and even less music, it stars two musicians: James Taylor as a nameless drag racer and Dennis Wilson as his mechanic. They pilot their gunmetal gray 1955 Chevy with concentrated but obscure purpose along Route 66, financing their odyssey by participating in local races. Austere enough to play saints in a Robert Bresson film, the two men are challenged, in body and spirit, by a smiling glad-hander (Warren Oates) who drives an orange GTO and never gives the same account of himself twice. Ominously, the Oates character has eyes for the hitchhiker (Laurie Bird) whom the two travelers have picked up along the way.

Mr. Hellman films the flat, empty landscapes with his eyes on the horizon line, as if he were John Ford following a wagon train on its way west. But this is a journey from California to the East Coast, a rollback of the American expansionist dream that finishes inside the head of a single character — and promptly self-destructs, as the film itself seems to catch fire and melt in the gate of the projector.

The Criterion package includes a full disc of recent interviews conducted by Mr. Hellman with some of the film’s surviving personnel, including Mr. Taylor — who says he still hasn’t seen the picture.