Vanishing Point is a car chase centric cult classic from 1971 that feels like two separate movies laid on top of each other. The bottom layer is a bare bones koan about a pilgrim who seems to be both physically and spiritually lost. Kowalski is a professional driver who is supposed to take a supercharged Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco over the course of several days - a reasonable enough assignment for a reasonable man, but unfortunately Kowalski is not a reasonable man. Instead, he is a pill-popping madman who is determined to push himself as hard as he can, and so he begins his long haul at midnight and drives straight through till the morning. Shortly after daybreak a cop sees him swerving on the road and tries to pull him over, but Kowalski refuses to obey. In fact, he tries to run the cop off the road, thus initiating a chase that escalates until police from several states are all tailing him.
This half of the movie blurs the line between action movie and meditation because there are times when Kowalski seems to be acting out of animal instinct and there are times when he seems to be obsessed with achieving some unknown higher destiny. Each individual piece of the chase has the sort of visceral appeal that you would expect from a muscle car movie, but when you put them together you get something with more metaphorical weight. James Dean's character in Rebel Without a Cause had some legitimate reasons for his angst, but Kowalski seems to have none, and as such his incessant rebellion reads as a commentary on man's tendency to seek oblivion, or on the nature of obsession.
Or maybe Kowalski just took too many uppers and is completely out of his mind; it is unclear, as he is basically a close-mouthed cipher who never reveals his true motivation.
Which leads us to the second layer of Vanishing Point: this movie is also a snapshot of the fringiest parts of the 70's counterculture, back when taking drugs was both a spiritual pursuit and a way to get fucked up. Most of Vanishing Point's side characters lack the gravitas that Kowalski has - in fact, many of them are outright goofy. The movie's narrator is a blind psychic DJ named Super Soul who delivers grand spiritual pronouncements while dancing in front of his microphone. Then there's an old man that Kowalski meets in the desert who has a deal with some local revivalists where he can trade them poisonous snakes for basic foodstuffs like sugar and beans. Then there's the naked biker, a young blonde woman who is (as advertised) completely naked. She offers her nubile body to Kowalski, but all he wants from her is some cigarettes - those are easier to indulge in during a long drive to nowhere.
However, even though those characters seem ridiculous at first glance they still have a spiritual side to them. Each of them offers Kowalski a glimpse of an alternate path he could be taking: Super Soul values self preservation so he tries to convince Kowalski to surrender to the cops; the snake handler encourages him to stop running and become an isolated hermit; the naked biker offers him a chance to temporarily lose himself in hedonism. As such, they all play into the film's existential undertones, because they each represent a different way to reach 'enlightenment' - although their over-the-top ideas of enlightenment stand in stark contrast to Kowalski's quiet stoicism.
The tonal difference between the scenes where the taciturn Kowalski is alone in his car and the scenes where he is interacting with his silly sidekicks is both frustrating and fascinating. Vanishing Point's insistence on toggling back and forth between meditative driving scenes and seemingly frivolous vignettes gives it a bit of schizophrenic feeling, but it also makes it a compelling document of its era. After all, this film was made at a schizophrenic time - the optimistic momentum of the hippie movement had mostly stalled out in the wakes of the Manson murders and known criminal Richard Nixon had parlayed his law-and-order promises into the Presidency. Vanishing Point's tonal inconsistencies make a lot more sense against that backdrop: the only thing that a race car driver and a cult of snake handling Jesus freaks and some promiscuous bikers have in common is that they all distrust The Man - but that's no small in a movie that is almost exclusively about trying to outrun the law.
Of course, that isn't going to be enough for them to win the day; this is a movie that obviously has to end in tragedy. Even if Kowalski wasn't hell-bent on his own self-negation he would never be able to stop his journey long enough to join forces with his fellow seekers; their approaches to life are too disparate for them to ever work together on any sort of permanent basis. Meanwhile the cops - who actually do have a reason to be united - keep getting more and more organized, adding more and more men and equipment to their manhunt, until they have formed a truly oppressive army. Yes, all of the film's vignettes can seem a bit all-over-the-place when they are viewed in isolation - but when you see them as individual chapters in a larger parable about how dangerous it can be to define your sense of self against an oppressive force you see how the various pieces add up to a cohesive whole.
Vanishing Point is a truly odd movie, since it hides a deeply pessimistic message underneath a layer of 70's kitsch. It sees the poetry in Kowalski's nihilism - but it also seems to understand that Kowalski's failures are our failures, too, and that our collective inability to either adapt to our currently corrupt society or to create a spiritually meaningful alternative is truly tragic. I can't think of many films that manage to mix existential yearning and exploitation film cliches in quite the same way - but I'm also kind of glad for that. Although I enjoy the way that Vanishing Point's twin engines play against each other, I have to admit it would be much easier to watch if it was a merely another car chase film, and not a car chase film where the drivers were heading full tilt towards an overcast and unwelcoming horizon.