Written by: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Terry Southern
Directed by: Dennis Hopper
Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson
Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider is the reason so many people long to have come of age in the 1960s. And who could blame them? These were the days of the hippies, of free-love, Route 66, Bob Dylan and the rise (and fall) of LSD. I seem to have memories of friends in High School talking about Easy Rider before I ever knew what it was, idolizing it and holding it as a beacon of a dead culture. I believe it’s a good thing I didn’t watch the film until now.
Easy Rider follows Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) as they travel from L.A. to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, funding their trip with money from a drug deal. By day the desert sun glints off their beautiful and iconic motorcycles and by night they smoke weed around a campfire. It is possible that nobody has looked as undeniably cool with as much ease as Fonda does in this film. The two drive a hitchhiker to his commune where they eat, get high and skinny dip with some hippy girls before hitting the road again. At the next town, the two ride their motorcycles in a local parade and get tossed in jail for “parading without a permit.” In jail they meet Jack Nicholson in his Oscar nominated role as George Hanson, an alcoholic lawyer.
As Nicholson enters the film, so too does the transformation from free-love schlock to sharp social portrait. Here, the trio ride into a very different America, one where longhairs aren’t welcome, and can’t even get served at a restaurant without the threat of being attacked by locals. In the woods, they get attacked by rednecks as they sleep. Even the drug trips are bad, as Billy and Captain America experience a waking nightmare in a cemetery with two hookers. There is something rotten at the core of American culture. The dream of the 60s dies in this film, the old ways of the South stomp out any hopes that peace and love will continue in any real way into the future.
In the latter half of the film, Hopper’s talent as a director is made clear. The adventure through the streets of Mardi Gras is dizzying and scored by a street band. The LSD trip in the cemetery gets credit for being intensely disorienting and nightmarish without delving into a psychedelic lightshow. Early in the film Hopper attempts to cut between scenes with a Godard-inspired flickering effect. It doesn’t work, but kudos for trying.
Nicholson’s performance as George Hanson breathes life into Easy Rider just at the moment when the film begins to sag. He is goofy, strange and terminally square. Nicholson plays the character with a surprising amount of tenderness, allowing the audience to feel a real, passionate but unseen yearning just below the character’s levels of self awareness.
Easy Rider is not really the hippy dream it has the reputation of being. In some ways it is, insofar as it’s a very accurate slice-of-life of a certain time and place, and it has such a classic 1960s soundtrack that 40 years later it almost feels like a parody of itself. But this film doesn’t view its world fondly, for ultimately one is not even free on the open road.