Film Review: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Release Date: July 7th, 1971 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Monte Hellman
Written by: Rudolph Wurlitzer, Will Corry
Music by: Billy James
Cast: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, Dennis Wilson, Harry Dean Stanton

Michael Laughlin Enterprises, Universal Pictures, 102 Minutes

Review:

“Performance and image, that’s what it’s all about.” – G.T.O.

1969’s Easy Rider really left its mark on people, especially the film industry. It’s pretty apparent that it had an effect on this picture, as far as its tone and narrative. But that’s not a bad thing, as Hollywood really started to evolve around the turn of the ’70s. Films got darker, more personal and much more experimental, as indie filmmakers started to redefine what a motion picture could be.

I also find it interesting that this came out the same year as Vanishing Point, which also features a cool car, a plot full of hopelessness and a gritty realness that wasn’t common in films before this time.

Now this can feel like a slow moving picture but it’s got a lot of energy and a strong spirit. None of these characters are all that likable but there’s something about each of them that is intriguing and lures you into their orbit.

I really think that the glue of the picture is Laurie Bird, who plays a character simply referred to as “The Girl”. She is the object of every man’s desire in this film and it is kind of unsettling, as she is very much a minor and isn’t, in any way, glammed up or all that beautiful. She’s pretty obviously a runaway that sleeps her way to free rides across the country with no real direction in life and no personal aspirations to speak of. But her part in this really puts the other characters into perspective, as they are all vying for her companionship, even though she’s just a ghost that comes into their lives for a brief moment in time, probably because she’s got nothing else to do. And ultimately, she bolts at the end of the story, leaving the men pining over her in her dust.

If anything, this film is a strong character study with understated performances, except in regards to Warren Oates’ G.T.O. Oates was stellar in this as a pathological liar, who gives riders in his car a different backstory every step of this journey. But he provided just about all of the personality in the film, even if he comes off as a middle aged loser running away from a life he failed at.

The plot is pretty lose and not focused but it doesn’t need to be, as we aren’t so much concerned with the beginning and the end of this “race” in the film, so much as we are just peeking into the lives of broken people in an era where America sort of had a dark cloud over it between the Vietnam War, the Nixon presidency, a drug boom and coming out of the Free Love Movement.

This will not be a film that everyone will enjoy and those looking for car action should look elsewhere. Maybe check out the original Gone In 60 Seconds. But for those who enjoy films like Easy Rider and Vanishing Point, they’ll probably also enjoy this.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Easy Rider.

Film Review: Race With the Devil (1975)

Release Date: June 27th, 1975
Directed by: Jack Starrett
Written by: Wes Bishop, Lee Frost
Music by: Leonard Rosenman
Cast: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit, Lara Parker, R.G. Armstrong

Saber Productions, 20th Century Fox, 88 Minutes

Review:

“What the hell happened to your van here? Your back window is all busted up!” – Gas Station Attendant, “I don’t drive too well when I’m asleep.” – Frank Stewart

Race With the Devil may have been distributed by a major studio but it was still a pretty bad ass grindhouse-esque picture during the heyday of those movies. Maybe it didn’t quite cross the line like the harder edged grindhouse action fare but it still had gargantuan gravitas and did a great job with its build up of suspense and its truly satisfying ending.

The film mixes a few genres that were popular at the time and honestly, should always be popular: horror, thriller, action, road trip and car chase. The road trip and car chase genres need better names, by the way.

From a narrative standpoint, the film is well balanced between its genres. It does great with the dramatic aspects and builds tension while mixing in the action at the right times. It isn’t an over the top action epic, per se, but those parts of the film are finely executed. The big car chase battle in the film’s climax is superb in all the right ways and delivers something great and gritty.

Peter Fonda and Warren Oates are both manly men and while their wives can get ridiculously annoying with the dumb damsel in distress shtick, these two men hold their own and never back down from the crazed Satanic cultists that are hunting them across Texas.

It is the inclusion of the cult that makes the film so cool, not to ignore the two leads and the awesome action. The heroes witness the Satanic cult sacrificing a nude women in the wilderness. The cultists see that they are being watched and spend the rest of the movie terrorizing these nice vacationers.

There are a few negatives but nothing major.

One, when they are sacrificing the nude babe, the film sort of blurs out her bare skinned sexual bits. C’mon, you’re sacrificing some naked babe on screen and you’re going to pull punches?

Secondly, the rattlesnake battle was poorly edited and confusing. I didn’t realize that there were actually two snakes until the tail end of this battle and the whole thing goes on entirely too long with the wives screaming like cracked out banshees. Real “nail on the chalk board” type stuff. But I do love rattlesnake danger in movies.

Another thing that kind of works against the picture, is that even though it all takes place in Texas, everything just looks the same geographically. Texas is a huge state with a lot of geographical changes.

Additionally, this cult is huge, as just about everyone in Texas seems to be in on it. There is some sort of large sinister network at work here but I’m not really sure how they are tracking the heroes and communicating when all the phones are “dead”.

But this isn’t the type of film that one should sit there and nitpick. I can’t help it though. But honestly, the flaws don’t bother me. I don’t watch these types of movies expecting Oscar caliber masterpieces. I watch them to be mindlessly entertained for 90 minutes. However, if one goes above and beyond mindless entertainment, which this film does, you’ve truly got something special.

Ride With the Devil is a solid piece of work. It has stood the test of time and still plays great today. And while not truly a grindhouse film, it does carry that same vibe and is a much more approachable picture for audiences that might not want to be overwhelmed with sex and violence.

Rating: 8.25/10