Vanishing Point is the ultimate ode to the need for speed, a ferocious white-line race dedicated to "the last American hero to whom speed means freedom of soul," the driver Kowalski (Barry Newman), making a high-speed run from Colorado to San Francisco with the police in pursuit. The film pulsates and revs in time with Kowalski, who simply swallows handfuls of pills and takes off, shuttling back and forth across the Western states as a delivery driver of some kind. On his latest trip, for obscure reasons, he jumps into a white 1970 Dodge Challenger, barely pausing between runs, and sets off on a propulsive journey through the desert nothingness of the West, barreling down the highways at impossible speeds and hardly ever taking his foot off the gas. The film never explains why. His delivery is not due for two days and he has plenty of time, and the hints of his troubled past are insufficient to explain this speed-fueled cross-country spree, which leaves a wake of shattered and exhausted police cruisers behind him. He doesn't even seem to enjoy it very much, driving with a stoic concentration and his knuckles white on the wheel. He simply does it because he can, because he has this compulsion for speed and the intense experience of the road.
Director Richard C. Sarafian knows this obsession for the road, and he makes this film an ecstatic celebration of Kowalski's journey, his stubborn and purposeless defiance of authority, his super-charged odyssey across the plains. The bulk of the film takes place on the road, in the car with Kowalski or looking out the window at what he sees, panning across the motion-blurred landscapes of the West or staring down into the white lines speeding past like tracer bullets, seeing no further than the few feet of concrete in front of the car's nose. The film's first half-hour or so is near-perfect, getting so close to the subjective experience of Kowalski's motion addiction that one can practically feel the bumps and the roar of the powerful engine up front. This is the action movie chase scene stretched out to feature-length, and Sarafian has a real feel for the form, whether he's right in the cockpit with Kowalski or pulling back for long shots that take in entire sweeping vistas where the Challenger and its pursuers are just specks in the landscape. These are action scenes that never sacrifice a sense of beauty. Heavy clouds and pale blue skies always seem to be hanging over the action, infusing the film with a majestic scope that stretches beyond one guy and his half-crazed mission.
Indeed, there's a spiritual, mystical component to Kowalski's journey, mostly provided by the pattering commentary of the radio DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little), who learns about Kowalski and the cops in pursuit and begins providing bulletins and updates on the radio. It's Super Soul who seems to grasp the importance of Kowalski's escape, who lends a spiritual significance and a political undertone to what is, for the driver himself, an inexplicable act. But Super Soul sees it as an act of resistance, and his gospel-like incantations about "the big blue meanies" and "the super driver of the golden West" give the film much of its potency, stretching it beyond just another car chase into an epic expression of freedom and the power of the individual. He calls Kowalski "the last beautiful free soul on this planet," which may be hard to reconcile with the blank-faced Newman, who hardly ever expresses any emotion during his long drive, but he's talking about an ideal rather than a person. The film is about the idea of speed, the idea of the road granting freedom, rather than about just some guy and his souped-up car.
Because of this, the film falters whenever it tries to get anymore specific about Kowalski himself. The sporadic flashbacks that cut away from the main action to various incidents in the driver's past are unwelcome, extraneous back story that only pull us out of the immediacy of the film's present. These flashbacks fill in stories about Kowalski's time as a failed race car driver and motorcycle racer, his career as a cop who left the force after stopping a fellow officer from sexually assaulting a girl, and his romance with a woman who drowned in a surfing accident. This detail is unnecessary, and it's awkwardly shoehorned into a movie that doesn't need it. Whereas the scenes of Kowalski driving have a timeless intensity and raw physicality, the flashbacks are saccharine, badly acted, vaseline-lensed affairs that date the film in its early 70s era. The flashback to Kowalski's time as a cop, the most puzzling of all, feels like an attempt at hamfisted social commentary, an incoherent statement about the mistreatment of women or the brutality of the police, with no attempt to integrate it into the film in any meaningful way.
The film's treatment of racism is more potent, perhaps because the attack on Super Soul's radio station by local authoritarian bigots actually deals with a character who the film develops and makes us care about. Super Soul may be exaggerated, an icon more than a person, but he has more personality and specificity than anyone else in the film. Elsewhere, Sarafian curiously undercuts his overall progressiveness by including a completely unnecessary scene in which two gay men attempt to rob Kowalski. This is a rather nasty anti-gay caricature that's curious in a film that otherwise seems more aligned with those outside the mainstream of society there's real empathy for blacks, women, hippies, drug burnouts and outlaws, but it seems like in the 70s homosexuality was the last "safe" target for mean-spirited attacks, even among the counterculture.
Despite these flaws, though, Vanishing Point remains a powerful, explosive film. It slows down slightly after its opening half hour, beginning to encompass more detours from the road, with Kowalski encountering some eccentric locals along the way. He runs across a desert snake-handler (Dean Jagger) who sells rattlers to a group of faith-healers, and a hippie whose uninhibited girlfriend rides a motorcycle in the nude. There's a surreal quality to these encounters that seems to point forward to David Lynch's Americana road movie Wild At Heart: damaged and bizarre people who one can meet simply by surrendering to the lure of the road, driving through this strange territory called America. Still, the film is at its best when there are no characters, no dialogue, no attempts at story, nothing but the roar of the road, the propulsive rhythms of the vibrant soundtrack, and the endless landscape of road and desert stretching out across the screen. At these moments, this is the ultimate American road movie, an amphetamine trip with the road as its soul.