The great burst of creativity and invention in American cinema from the late 1960s to the early 1970s is one of the most epochal periods in cinema.
In an effort to connect with younger countercultural audiences, the big studios began to loosen their grip on the cinematic formulas that had kept classic Hollywood going for so long. An open road was uncovered, allowing the likes of Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, and Terrence Malick to explore narratives of escapism, freedom, and possibility. Henceforth, the American road trip genre was born.
So, fill up the gas tank, pack up the trunk, and buckle your seat belts. We’re hitting the two-lane blacktop for ten of the greatest American road trip films.
The Hitch-Hiker (1953) – Ida Lupino
“When was the last time you invited death into your car?” asked the poster for Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker, believed to be the first film-noir by a female director. On a fishing trip, two American husbands (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) divert south of the border into Baja California, where they pick up a hitchhiker (William Talman) – who turns out to be a wanted killer. As he forces them to drive him further down into Mexico, Ida Lupino turns a B-movie budget to thrilling advantage, setting the action within the car, by rocky desert roadsides and amidst the shadowy light of a night-time campfire. Edge-of-your-seat stuff.
Five Easy Pieces (1970) – Bob Rafelson
Jack Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, a blue-collar worker in California who travels upcoast to the Pacific Northwest to attend his ailing father, the patriarch of a well-to-do musical family living on the coast of Washington. An outsider, the classically trained Bobby is as alienated from his fussy, cultivated family as he is out of place among the oil derricks of the Golden State. Taking along his waitress girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black), his trip through Oregon takes in oddball hitchhikers, grungy motels, and a famous scene in a diner when Bobby lashes out at a waitress who insists he sticks to the menu. All the while, director Bob Rafelson proves himself unusually sensitive to the poetic textures of remote locales.
Duel (1971) – Steven Spielberg
Made for television, Steven Spielberg’s first film is a simple but brutally efficient thriller about a salesman, David Mann (Dennis Weaver), travelling through the California desert. At every turn, Mann is menaced by a smoke-spewing truck. Meeting disbelief from the patrons of the roadside diners and truck stops where he seeks help, Mann’s trip becomes a nightmare odyssey. The truck’s driver is never seen and his motive never explained, making the rusty juggernaut a terrifying adversary to rival the great white shark in Spielberg’s later breakthrough, Jaws.
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) – Monte Hellman
Two-Lane Blacktop characters don’t have names but are instead referred to as The Driver, The Mechanic, and The Girl. This is a film stripped down to the chassis: a vehicle for existential escape. Hellman’s minimalist voyage through the American heartlands – from California, via Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and into the south – was a commercial failure on release but has become a cult classic. It even inspired the famous Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash.
Badlands (1973) – Terrence Malick
The couple-on-the-run genre accounts for many classics, from Gun Crazy to Natural Born Killers. By 1973, filmmakers had done the form to death in the wake of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. That was until prodigious film student by the name of Terrence Malick came along to forge Badlands, a visionary evocation of a teenage couple who flee their South Dakota hometown after Kit (Martin Sheen) murders Holly’s (Sissy Spacek) authoritarian father. Narrated with storybook naivety, their escape begins in an idyllic rural hideout before they are forced out across the empty spaces of the midwest and the forces of civilisation close in upon them.
Starman (1984) – John Carpenter
After a run that included Halloween (1978), Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing (1982), Starman is sometimes dismissed as a misstep by director John Carpenter. But the comparative lack of terror shouldn’t disguise the fact that this is a tender, beautifully acted love story and an intriguing science fiction pit-stop in the road movie canon. When an alien is shot down over Wisconsin, it finds its way to the home of a recent widow and guilelessly adopts the appearance of her dead husband. After her initial shock and disbelief, the widow agrees to help the starman evade capture by the US Army, taking to the road with him on a drive south to Arizona where he hopes to rendezvous with his own kind.
Something Wild (1986) – Jonathan Demme
Paying tribute to 1930s screwball comedies, Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild is a bold, joyous, terrifying trip through America’s eastern states, filled with eye-popping colours and a jubilant soundtrack of 80s art rock and reggae.It kicks off in New York, where yuppie Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) encounters Lulu (Melanie Griffith), an alluring, black-bobbed kook. She encourages him to ditch an afternoon of work in favour of an increasingly bizarre road trip down to Virginia, which takes in bondage, a high school reunion, and a gas station hold-up at the hands of Lulu’s dangerous ex-con husband (Ray Liotta).
Thelma & Louise (1991) – Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise was a wildly popular feminist take on the couple-on-the-run form. Waitress Louise (Susan Sarandon) and her friend Thelma (Geena Davis) head out for a trip into the mountains in a 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible. Things take a dramatic turn when Louise shoots dead an attempted rapist, leaving the outlaw pair no option but to put pedal to metal for Mexico – with the law in pursuit. The film delights in Marlboro ad imagery of the desert south-west, its roadside Americana and the vast, gaping grandeur of the Grand Canyon.
Sideways (2004) – Alexander Payne
Director Alexander Payne returns again and again to the road trip as a voyage of emotional discovery for his characters. His 2004 hit Sideways is no exception, using a road trip into California wine country to expose the fractured emotional state of oenophile author Miles (Paul Giamatti). One of Payne’s most perfectly judged balancing acts between humour and pathos, Sideways is as funny as it is painful in its acute portrait of middle-aged disappointment and loneliness.
Old Joy (2006) – Kelly Reichardt
Old Joy is a simple, subtle tale of two male friends, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), who head out for the weekend to a remote hot spring deep in the forest to the east of Portland. Over the course of their car journey, round-the-campfire camaraderie, and eventual soak in the wooden bathtubs at Bagby Hot Springs, fissures of discontent and sublimated desire grow plain as day, with Kurt regretting the decline in their friendship since Mark’s marriage.
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Words by Elizabeth Kim