17 Jun

And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. Vanishing Point.

Posted by Bryan White | Sunday June 17, 2007 | Reviews

Vanishing PointThe 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.

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14 Comments 

  1. June 25, 2007 10:19 am

    Henrik Landler

    It´s funny you should write about this movie.
    I saw it sometime in the eighties, and never got it out of my system.
    Isn´t Kowalski killed at the end of the movie ?

  2. June 27, 2007 10:27 am

    Retroman DC

    I totally missed the metaphorical approach this movie had. That definitely adds a layer of depth I really overlooked. Great observations. I think I was expecting more of an intensity to this film that wasn’t there since Grindhouse referenced it as the greatest car chase movie. I feel it was a bit slow in that regards. Still worth checking out though and you gotta love the car.

    Retroman DC
    http://www.dchighway.com

  3. June 27, 2007 10:33 am

    Bryan White

    I’m not really much of car guy, but the Dodge muscle from that time make me want one so bad. Blade made me want a black ’69 Charger and this one makes me want a ’70 Challenger more than anything else. The new Challengers look great, too.

    Grindhouse really played it up and if I had to pick a best car chase movie, I’d probably put my finger on the ’74 Gone In 60 Seconds since that one is unrelenting. The tag line sells it: 93 cars destroyed in 97 minutes. I think the only other car chase that holds a candle is in The Blues Brothers. That one is just pure madness. I can’t think of any movie that wrecks cars in such an awesome way. It’s a total clusterfuck.

  4. June 27, 2007 12:49 pm

    Henrik Landler

    Does anybody here, know the Walter Hill movie ” The Driver ” from 1978 ?

  5. June 27, 2007 1:00 pm

    Bryan White

    I hate to spoil it for everyone, but Henrik is right about the ending. Kowalski drives the car, pedal to the metal, right into the bulldozer roadblock and goes up in flames in front of the crowd that has gathered. I’ve seen some discussions about why he’s smiling when he crashes. Some people think that it has something to do with the ongoing freedom message throughout that no matter what the police do, nothing can stop him from freedom, not even driving 140 miles per hour into the buckets of two bulldozers. Quite frankly, I think it has something to do with Kowalski being a lunatic behind the wheel. He hasn’t really slept much throughought the movie and he eats amphetamines by the handful. The gap between the bulldozers must have looked huge to him.

    Also, I haven’t seen The Driver. I’m a huge Walter Hill fan, but it never occurred to me to check that one out. I’m going to have to hunt it down.

  6. June 27, 2007 6:07 pm

    Henrik Landler

    I have to say, that “The Driver” is the mother of all chase-movies.
    It´s a kind of Film-noir/thriller/chase-movie, in a 70es enviroment, with some
    AWESOME car chases.
    Once you´ve seen it, you wont´t forget it.

  7. June 27, 2007 6:39 pm

    Kasper Andersen

    I love the Driver. Ryan O’neal is great in that movie, and the chases!
    There is actually a (oh no) remake on the way, believe it or not.
    IMDb

  8. June 29, 2007 9:06 am

    Henrik Landler

    For another fantastic car-chase, look
    for the movie ” The Seven-Ups ” from 1973, with Roy Scheider.

  9. August 28, 2007 9:59 pm

    Retro

    I just love a cool classic car like a convertible Cutlass. I see them all the time in movies and TV now.

  10. February 24, 2008 3:07 am

    Ed Bigelow

    Not that Tarantino is Spielberg or anything. But he is still an acclaimed movie maker. If guys like him are making reference to a “B” movie, then does it not show that it is more. I mean look at the time that has elapsed since the movie was made and when Quentin and others got started. It definately holds up. By the way, many have ventured into how or where the “Vanishing Point” title comes into play. In my opinion, I think it is near the beginning of the movie. If you pay close attention to the first scene. Kowalski heads toward the dozers, screeches to a turnaround and goes into the desert. Then he hits the road again. Then the scene breaks when he passes a big black sedan in slow motion. (By the looks a 1970 Chrysler Imperial) Look closely and you will see that it is the same one that he drops off at the garage before picking up the Challenger and heading out again. The moment that the 2 cars pass each other to me is the “Vanishing Point”. It is the void in time where he was either going towards the dozers to crash or just before delivering the Imperial to start his journey to death.

  11. January 2, 2013 11:00 am

    Eduard

    Kowalski smiles because he knows he’s at the end, and he’s laughting. Soupersoul: blind who guides the blinds. No future before punks. Existencialist movie, great script (Guillermo Cabrera infante, cuban writer), methaforic movie about what the hell to do with freedom. Living on the edge, it only depends on the hunting of cops. Tragic dicission at the end.

  12. June 30, 2013 10:35 pm

    Rick Hendricks

    You all seem to have missed the entire Vanishing Point of the film. A Vanishing point is where two parallel lines meet. Kowalski makes the same trip twice, once in each direction, parallel lines if you ken. The vanishing point is where Kowalski passes himself, and the film frame freezes to indicate this along with a caption for dense people. Kowalski is now going the other direction, and the “empty”/second car crashes into the dozers. Kowalski’s parallel lines have met, and he is in a perpetual loop, having achieved freedom in the metaphor of speed. He is travelling endlessly on a mobius strip, a seemingly two-sided three dimensional object which in reality has but one surface: both his freedom and his prison. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

  13. August 9, 2013 2:15 am

    Aniko

    What an awful movie

  14. June 17, 2014 1:25 am

    Alan Welker

    Rick, no offence, but I think you missed something. Yes, Kowalski was trapped in a loop and had passed himself at 10:02am heading in the opposite direction; therefore, arriving two days earlier in Colorado. On the return trip headed towards San Francisco, however, the cycle was broken. He missed himself when he plowed through the fence and chilled out for awhile; the two cars didn’t pass on the road again. As such, he plowed into the roadblock at 10:04am. Kowalski was joyful at the end because he realized the cycle was finally over – he was free. While driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger would be awesome, it’s not how I’d like to spend eternity and apparently Kowalski would agree…


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