At a certain point in many American lives, the little sermon of George Hanson, played by a young Jack Nicholson, crystallizes within the mind. An ACLU lawyer, Hanson seems to merely feign ignorance when he says, "This used to be a hell of a good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it." Hanson deliberately explains to the obtuse and confused Billy (Dennis Hopper), as if in a tutorial, that everyday Americans are genuinely afraid of the freaks amidst the population because those freaks, no matter how ill-tempered and rough, are actually enjoying liberty, that quintessential American birthright supposedly as inherent in this country's ideals as the value of oxygen to a human being. The drones who comprise ordinary Americans may plead that they want freedom, but, Hanson warns with philosophical gravity, "...it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace." Hanson's partly hazy, partly incisive reading of the ills of society plays out a little like a civics course, possibly a professorial lecture. His ultimate point: it's nearly impossible to be free in the truest sense of the word when you are cogs in a vast economic machine.
The screenplay of Easy Rider may feature the names Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda (who plays Hopper's friend, Wyatt) above the more likely real heavy-lifter among the writing unit, Terry Southern. Fonda and Hopper doubtless had the original conception for Easy Rider but Southern described their screenwriting contributions as "dumb-bell dialogue" almost entirely improvised by the actors themselves, leaving Southern to write the overwhelming bulk of the final shooting script. Southern was a man of complexities, a kind of paradoxical creature whose nearly bipolar sense of being stirs almost immediate interest. He was an avid student of philosophy and an enormous admirer of Faulkner while also being a deeply cynical hipster and troublemaker, goofing off and having fun with the founders of the Paris Review in the Parisian streets.
Easy Rider could possibly be the uttermost '60s American film. Partly an attack on American imperialism during the Vietnam War, it was largely unloved among conservatives. Despite its sleeve-wearing liberalism, however, a more shadowy, recondite sense of traditionalism lurks in the background of this film's troubled landscape. The motorcycle-trekking duo may be in search of America, as the tagline of the film says, but their understanding is feeble despite what would appear to be their best, most open-minded intentions. Naturally, they run up against trouble in the form of Southerners who are hostile toward their ways. Yet Billy and Wyatt, for all of their physical predicaments, are not merely victims of redneck intolerance--a perfectly suitable but oddly altogether unsatisfying reading of the film--but also of their own apparent "capitalist" avarice, too. Their journey's main reason for existing is its financial insurance through a cocaine deal. Both subtle and unmistakable, while the actual cocaine deal ensues, Steppenwolf's "God Damn the Pusher Man" musically thumps the duo and implicates them--and us--in their tragic misadventure.
An iconic representation of the counterculture, Easy Rider is also a milestone in the history of the American independent cinema. Made on what would seem to be a true shoestring budget, this simple distillation of the doomed rebels of one era almost stings the viewer today with its intelligently sober-eyed, dismayed and dismally realized denouement. Fonda reportedly approached Bob Dylan for permission to use his song "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" but when Dylan asked for details about the film, and especially its conclusion, he refused. When Fonda protested, Dylan is said to have remarked, "You have to give them [the counterculture] hope. Hope for a future." Fonda said coldly, "They don't have one." So the story goes. As a result, Dylan's song is in the film but it's performed by Roger McGuinn.
The direction by Hopper is wily and resourceful, and the performances are either completely sound or in the outstanding case of Nicholson, truly riveting. The psychedelic narrative is both deceptively dense and fantastically nimble. The film's rock 'n' roll pacing gives this road trip of a movie its roaring engine. Easy Rider is both annular and linear: visuals repeat themselves, casually reappear, seem to mean little at one moment and then gradually gain in import; meanwhile, the story progression never ceases as one memorable scene quickly follows another. Hopper immediately gains our attention with sharp actions based in deeply meaningful imagery. The shot of the watch being thrown into the ground is as captivating as it has ever been, nearly four whole decades later.
The bikers find themselves in an episodic confrontation with the inner workings of society and its basic microcosms. Early in the film, they are guests for a rancher married to a Mexican woman with a substantial number of offspring. The rancher represents the gentlemanly Christian, saying grace before the meal with the guests, and behaving as kindly as possible despite being occasionally annoyed by the loudness of the bikes and the less-than-fully-tactful ways of the motley pair. Wyatt is only able to mutter, "You do your own thing in your own time." Wyatt and Billy, despite superficially fitting in with a commune of free-love hippies, fall terribly short of the ideal. In the end, they too are themselves motivated by entrepreneurial and individualistically-minded agendas and less the victims of capitalism than its beneficiaries and unwitting banner-carriers.
Easy Rider's somewhat fatalistic odyssey finds both humor and pathos in the Hanson character. Nicholson makes him fully three-dimensional whereas there are times where Hopper's bombastic, skittish and fidgety Billy and Fonda's calm, introspective and more trusting Wyatt seem excessively defined against one another. The cinematography by the great Laszlo Kovacs, who left us last year, is a kind of naturalistically rich, spontaneously-minded lighting strategy that allows the characters to somehow absorb the lonely road and integrate it into their distinct personalities. (Wyatt, "Captain America," seems more positively sure of himself even when on his bike while the anxious Billy seems to desire approval derived from camaraderie.)
The film's final judgment is a sagely dispiriting one, as the frolicking drug dealers meet their wretched fate with a kind of resigned acceptance. The submissive conclusion plays out like an extended, serene epiphany. Amidst all the turmoil and vituperation, against the backdrop of the epoch of the movement, the film's "Rosebud" moment occurs with the doped-up Wyatt sensing the disgusting truth. In lusting after the big score, and their shallow, materialistically-based dreams of grandeur, they "blew it."