Thursday, June 04, 2015


Two young men, identified in the credits only as the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), appear to do nothing but race their tricked-out '55 Chevy for pocket money. Starting in California, they hit the road heading east and have occasional encounters with the middle-aged driver of a yellow Pontiac GTO (Warren Oates), who is also heading east, picking up a variety of hitchhikers along the way. Oates, who acts like he's got something to prove, challenges Taylor and Wilson to a race to Washington, DC, with the winner getting the loser's car as a prize. Oddly, the men end up meeting each other frequently along the way, sometimes clashing, sometimes bonding.  A hitchhiker, called the Girl in the credits (Laurie Bird), hooks up with both Wilson and Taylor before giving Oates a shot, but ultimately in Arkansas, she leaves all three for a motorcyclist. And that's about it for plot. In fact [spoiler], the movie ends before any of them make it to Washington.

The phrase "existential road movie" is invariably used to describe this film, and that's exactly what it feels like. On some level, this is a character drama, though we don't get very far under the skin of any of the characters with the possible exception of the GTO driver, whom we discover is an insecure man who continually makes up fictitious stories about himself. Early on, he says he's left his wife and family to go on the road, but by the end, we realize it's possible and even probable that he made that up, too. By the last scene, Oates has even taken on the lives of Taylor and Wilson when he tells a hitchhiker that he took a '55 Chevy and turned it into a prime racing car. The director, Monte Hellman, deliberately picked non-actors for the rest of the primary roles; Taylor is flat and boring, delivering his lines like an amateur, and Bird isn't much better, but Wilson (at right), a founding member of the Beach Boys, is very good. He doesn't necessarily "act" more or better than the others, but he always looks like he's in character, and like his character might actually have an interior life. Harry Dean Stanton, early in his career, has a memorable cameo. Though there's not a lot to this movie, it kept me interested, and visually it is often gorgeous. [DVD]

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

I absolutely love this movie. It is as you say an existential road movie, something I'd normally steer well clear of, but it's weirdly mesmerising. And I agree wholeheartedly on Dennis Wilson - he's perfect.