Review: Vanishing Point (1971)

How is it that I've lived 29 years (21 of those a gearhead) and not seen Vanishing Point?

This film is hard to pin down. It's like:

  • Easy Rider, in a car

  • Smokey and the Bandit, but no midget and it's not funny

  • Cannonball Dom DeLouise, and it's not funny.

  • Apocalypse now/Heart of Darkness but no jungle

  • Homer's Odyssey but no boat

More precisely, this film has the same overall theme as "Cool Hand Luke"--an ordinary man comes back from war (in the case, Vietnam), knocks around awhile and gets into trouble, and pays the price. As the audience, we're supposed to identify with the main character, and see how "the man" and "the squares" are hell-bent on destroying the utopian hippie vision of freedom and love.

Our "Luke" here is named Kowalski, a speed-freak (in both senses) decorated Vietnam vet who gets kicked out of the police force in the late 60's for ratting on his lecherous partner. After that, he kicks around racing motorcycles and cars, finally ending up as a driver for a car-delivery service. As our story begins, Kowalski shows up on Friday at 11pm in Denver, picks up a 1970 4-speed Dodge Challenger 440 and heads over to his regular hookup to buy some Amphetamines (Speed, "Ups") so that he can return nonstop to California. He bets his dealer the price of the drugs, if he can make it to San Francisco (~1200) miles by 3pm Saturdayfree.

this mad dash across the wild, free West, is the framework for the story. We meet hippies, carjacking Queens, a snake handling prospector, and a random naked woman on a motorcycle, and Tiresius himself--a blind black DJ names Super Soul. Throughout, Kowalski evades the combined police forces of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California...until he doesn't. The end is famous, but I won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen it.

Like Easy Rider or Cool Hand Luke, this film is of a different time--Vietnam and the 60's left the country with a vast hangover, and that "the man" had won. Nixon was in the White House, we were still in Vietnam, and the vast promise of the open road left a question. Now What?

Taken on its own merits, this film is unwatchable at times: Boring, protracted empty landscapes lead to scenes and characters that add nothing. The intermezzo in the desert puzzles. . .it's like Apocalypse Now, in the desert with a car, and makes about as much sense. Other times, there's gripping action, fear, and uncertainly. Uneven, rather like life itself:-)

Yet...there's transcendency here, amid the bad edits and worse acting. Vanishing Point is catharsis. Americans faced the same bleak outlook in the 1970's that Kowalski did in microcosm--behind lay a rocky past, and before them lay uncertain (or blocked) futures. What action should they take? What inspiration (or caution) would others take from that action?

This is a cult movie for good reason: People should never forget the crossroads of a generation, a quandry this movie captures in one doomed man's inscrutable gaze.

* * *

Oh, and I could listen to that 440's blaaaaaaaat exhaust all day long.

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