The Tarantino half of Grindhouse dropped names heavily as his movies tend to do. The one name that kept coming up was Vanishing Point. After all, the entire plot of Death Proof hinges on the girls getting their hands on an “alpine white” 1970 Dodge Challenger. The last time I saw Vanishing Point, I was probably 11. It had been a while and I was glued to the screen when it was on TV way the hell back then, so I gave it another spin to see how it held up. It does. Quite well, actually. I’m much older now with a much better grip on history and American culture from that time. The true message of the movie was a lot clearer to me this time around.
Vanishing Point is a strange movie. An existential car chase movie that’s less about Kowalski and his bad ass Challenger and more about America and the cultural landscape of Vietnam era America. Kowalski is an archetype and the car, the road, everything else is metaphor. There are a shitload of sweet car chases to be sure and the movie makes me want a Challenger real bad but the deeper meaning and Cleavon Little as Super Soul really makes this movie more than just roaring engines and car wipeouts. I might go so far to call it Easy Rider in a muscle car.
Vanishing Point keeps it simple. Kowalski is a delivery driver who insists on taking another car from Colorado to San Francisco despite the protests of his boss who thinks he needs some sleep, and he does. Kowalski is depicted as a man on the edge. through a series of flashbacks we learn that he’s a wounded Vietnam vet, a cop who was set up on drug charges after stopping his partner from raping a woman, a stock car driver and a motorcycle driver, driven out of both professions by nasty accidents. There’s also a scene which insinuates that he had a girlfriend who died in a surfing accident. Kowalski buys some benzedrine in Colorado and immediately hits the road at top speed, grabbing the attention of the cops right away. So begins the car chase. As the police presence behind Kowalski grows, he grabs the attention of Super Soul, a DJ who begins broadcasting updates to Kowalski and about Kowalski which creates an instant mythology about him and draws the local counterculture to the radio station as they cheer him on. Along the way, Kowalski is met and helped by a crazy dude in the desert who trades snakes to a christian cult, a biker who helps him break through a police roadblock and a hitchhiker who may or may not be the physical manifestation of death (depending on which version of the movie you see, Charlotte Rampling appears as the Hitchhiker toward the end).
Everything happening in this movie describes post-Woodstock America in very abstract terms. Kowalski can’t seem to get ahead. The country failed him in Vietnam, the legal system failed him as a cop, the one beautiful thing in his life dies, bad accidents stop him from doing what he loves to do, but the Challenger and the open road is where he is truly free. The cops have nothing on him, they eat dust every time. They’re just no match for a 400 horse power Mopar. The once idealistic hippies have retreated to the desert to handle snakes in a religious cult. Everything here is just so bleak.
Thankfully, there’s a sweet car and a sweet soundtrack. Super Soul provides the soundtrack and jive laden commentary, like the Greek chorus, for the entire affair. Aside from Mountain and a couple of others, though, I’m afraid I’m not terribly familiar with anyone else on it. The music provides a strong pulse for an otherwise weird movie.
Vanishing Point is definitely a cult movie but among cult movie fans, it’s sorely overlooked in favor of other metaphorical road movies. It definitely deserves a look. Car chase fans will be left satisfied as will fans of counterculture movies.