The 1971 cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop is, on the surface, a film about street racing. A two-man team identified only as the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) drive around in their customized ’55 Chevy One-Fifty looking for people to race. They find an easy mark in GTO (Warren Oates), a man—identified only by the car he drives—who seems to believe whatever version of his own backstory he tells the hitchhikers he picks up. At one point he says he won the hot rod in Vegas, but his story shifts frequently. He accepts the Driver and Mechanic’s challenge of a cross-country race. The winner gains ownership of the loser’s car. As plots go, there isn’t much to it. There’s even less actual racing action.
The real theme is loneliness, with the open road serving as the manifestation of its characters’ aimless lives. Director Monte Hellman cast Taylor, who had never acted previously, based on the singer-songwriter’s looks alone. Nor had Wilson, best known as The Beach Boys’ drummer, acted before. The presence of these two rookie actors (neither of whom sang or contributed any music to the film) would be enough to ensure on-going cult status for Two-Lane Blacktop.
Taylor's Driver seems to be defiantly running away from anything resembling a normal life. We don't learn enough about him to know why. Equally unknowable is the Mechanic, with Wilson underplaying his part as much as Taylor (just not quite as sullenly). Riding with the pair, at least on a fleeting basis, is the Girl (Laurie Bird). She’s a bored tomboy, as difficult to pin down as the male leads. The Driver and Mechanic seem wholly indifferent to her presence in the back of their car.
That leaves Oates’ GTO, widely (and correctly) considered the beating heart of the film. He’s living out a mid-life crisis (failed marriage, failed career) on the road. Unlike the Driver, however, he just doesn’t seem all that comfortable there. The Driver has a loyal travelling companion; he doesn’t waste his time picking up strangers. GTO appears to be craving human contact, picking up a succession of hitchhikers ranging from a guy who prefers using the ladies’ room to relieve himself, to a gay drifter (Harry Dean Stanton).