Sandwiched between two shlock horror extravaganzas and a decade full of even more boundary-pushing material, 1979’s Fast Company feels like a total one-off oddity in David Cronenberg’s oeuvre. Indulging the director’s reputed love of all things automotive (later displayed more famously, and grotesquely, in 1996’s Crash), it follows a team of drag racers working the national touring circuit, while begrudgingly serving as promotional puppets for their auto parts company sponsor. Yet beyond the obvious surface dissimilarities, the film has a lot in common with Cronenberg’s more characteristic work, functioning as the sunny daydream reverie to the usual nocturnal nightmares, with a chirpy tone that belies many of the same morbid and subversive fixations.

Viewed under this lens, the entire venture stands a fascinating experiment in form clashing with content, held together by an increasingly firm directorial hand. The movie kicks off with its own Springsteen knockoff theme song (one of two original tunes boasted by an otherwise unlavish production), and some majestic views of the Canadian Rockies, with a convoy of cars charging along the highway. The procession soon arrives in Edmonton, the environs around which will dominate the rest of the shooting locations, even as the film pretends to track the tour’s passage throughout the Upper American West.

The group is anchored by Billy Brooker (Nicholas Campbell), a young hotshot with dreams of high-octane stardom, and Lonnie Johnson (William Smith), a veteran on the early downslope of a legendary career. Surrounded by a colorful cast of characters comprising their own pit crew and that of a rival team, the duo’s real antagonist is their jerk boss Phil Adamson (the recently deceased John Saxon). The owner establishes from the outset that he doesn’t care about the art or science of racing, only that this company name is prominently displayed on as many surfaces as possible. Their ultimate status as functional peons of a callous corporate overlord comes to a head in the film’s first race, after Lonnie’s car goes up in flames and Adamson refuses to replace it, destabilizing the team’s previously easygoing dynamic.

That initial contest also injects the earliest signs of distinctive Cronenbergian perversion, which pervades throughout, granting an otherwise empty-headed racing flick a weird, sinister undertone. Shooting from inside the cars, which enfold and conceal their helmeted drivers like metallic carapaces, he envisions the vehicles as extensions of the racer’s bodies, articulating their competitive spirit in quick, expressive slashes of speed. Conveyed with expert economy, these scenes allow for an unlikely point of comparison with Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, another film about men who can truly express themselves only in one-on-one battle with one another, swathed in a protective casing that both obscures and communicates their individual identities. Lonnie even lives inside a flatbed truck, in an expansive mobile bachelor pad that, along with several key instances of motor oil standing in for other bodily fluids, assures a cybernetic focus that insistently meshes man with machine.

While not ever pushing toward any of the serious formal and narrative inquiry that defines Cronenberg’s best work, the auteurist strains present here do assure that Fast Company is always interesting, even when it’s playing dumb. This makes for a snappy, effervescent movie, full of Budweiser toasts and corny period dialogue (“bitchin’” gets a real workout), yet also one that culminates with two fiery, horrific deaths and one serious maiming, which segue with nearly no pause into another round of back-slapping bonhomie. Picking up on many dominant currents of the ‘70s exploitation flick, as audience-analogue working stiffs rebel with gusto against unscrupulous white-collar villains, it fleshes out a niche professional world with just enough technical detail to make it feel genuine. In the end, it serves as a fascinating mirror of the usual Cronenberg fare, a story of two men squaring off against a shadowy conspiracy that keeps such darkness gathered shrewdly at the edges of the frame.

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