Kowalski is a speed-popping racing man with a car to deliver in record time. Between him and his destination sits the American Establishment and all its spirit-squashing rules. With a Dodge Challenger as a metaphor and the open road as a battleground, the very meaning of existence will be debated. Well, that or this is just a damn cool road movie. With films from the Seventies it can be hard to tell…
Vanishing Point – whether by design or accident – is two movies. On the surface it plays as a chase film, where a lone driver outwits and outrides his pursuers. Underneath it’s an examination of America at the start of the Seventies, mulling in the aftermath of the revolutionary Sixties. But from there things get a little strange, even mystical. Especially when you watch it a second time. To this day not even the cast and crew have given satisfactory explanations of what the audience is supposed to think. That may be because they didn’t really think it through themselves. This has given the film a reputation for being a deeply philosophical piece, where everyone will have a different opinion on what it’s about. Like Donnie Darko, but with muscle cars and mutton chops.
Yet even if you never take it to those existential heights, Vanishing Point is a very satisfying petrolhead experience. Its centrepiece is the Dodge Challenger taking on scores of police vehicles, with Kowalski tearing across the freeway, ripping up dirt roads and even taking random jaunts into the desert. Cars crash and roll – all while a growing audience of America’s free spirits cheer him on. In particular a blind disc jockey becomes his unofficial cheerleader. Jeremy Clarkson considers it the best car movie made – certainly a hard point to argue (though this column still prefers Gone In 60 Seconds).
Vanishing Point wobbled at the box office, but became a cult classic and inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s debut feature Duel. You can certainly declare that they don’t make films like this any more. Even the 1997 TV remake of Vanishing Point was heavy with dragging dialogue and shallow character motivations. The original avoids these where it can and gleans over them when it can’t. Vanishing Point comes from a time when movies truly were still an experience – a larger than life metaphor that doesn’t need to explain itself. All it wants is that you strap in for the ride.
Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.
Last Updated: November 18, 2013