Cooper (Alan Arkin) is mixed up with a freight hijacking operation, and as he stands by observing a stolen truck being repainted and given forged documentation and plates, he is unimpressed though feels he does what he does to get by. The pull of the open road is a strong one, and at least he will be out there somewhere as his wanderlust cannot be denied, so as he drives the truck with its trailer full of car parts and makes small talk with the crook who is his co-driver his mind is racing about how he can get out of this situation. And at a stop the next day, he finds his opportunity...
If Deadhead Miles is recalled at all, it is not because of its director, Vernon Zimmerman, or even its star, but because it was an early screen credit for that giant of cult moviemakers, if such a thing isn't a contradiction in terms, Terrence Malick. This effort was made the year before he enjoyed his breakthrough success with Badlands, and shares a similarly peripatetic nature, although as a story it was far more randomly assembled. Indeed, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the filmmakers had simply watched Easy Rider a few too many times and were so inspired that they improvised a movie on the spot.
Well, not so much on the spot as on quite a few spots as this was a road movie through and through, and one of those existential productions that the early seventies liked so much, if not the kind that typically had the punters swarming to their local cinemas to enjoy. Especially so in the case of Deadhead Miles, as it was hardly released at all, and when it was about ten people saw it, leaving it to be thought of as pretty much a lost film until it showed up on a handful of television broadcasts. All this in spite of the Malick name being attached to it, which goes to show you precisely how uncommercial the studio which commissioned it felt the work was.
In truth there is something oddly offputting about the film, and that may be down to its leading man. Arkin is either delivering a superb performance of cheerfully unhinged skill, or he has abandoned all the talent he proved himself to have before and since and for the amount of time it took to shoot this went artistically off the rails. Take the voice he uses, not like you would remember him being unless you remembered him talking like a redneck hick in a cartoon; add that to the behaviour of his character and you have someone who it is particularly difficult to get a handle on. Cooper's existence is a peculiarly aimless one, and even if you agree to go on this journey with him, as a hitchhiker he picks up (Paul Benedict) does, you won't necessarily leave him fulfilled.
After a while it seems as if you're watching a series of sketches that happen to feature the same protagonist, that's assuming that Deadhead Miles was meant to be a comedy as there are no guarantees that it was other than its tone of absurdism. It's more a collection of memorable scenes than a proper, linear narrative, which will have Cooper, now escaped with the truck to roam the highways as he pleases, meeting with various eccentrics or passersby - nobody as eccentric as he is, mind you. For instance, at one point he goes to a prostitute who he can't help but notice is chained up to prevent her running off, which dissaudes him from going any further, or he will be pulled over by the cops and spin some outrageous lies to get him off the hook. Then perhaps he will indulge in a little precision Coke bottle throwing as he drives, or go to a bar where he meets Loretta Swit with a glass eye, it's that kind of film. If you can adjust to its willful idiosyncrasy, then by all means dive in. Music by Dave Dudley and Tom T. Hall (no Grateful Dead, though).