Easy Rider (1969, Dennis Hopper)
Road trips can prove to be revelatory experiences, whether in subtle manner or unexpectedly bold ways. The act of seeing different parts of one's country (or the world) one is unaccustomed to can, potentially, create many disparate reactions. What are other people like? What is one's relationship to them and how might that modify the notion one has of their country in their head? Will the vistas outside the city impress or bore? There are so many interesting connections to be made on such expeditions, be they with other humans or nature itself, that the popularity of such excursion comes as little surprise, nor does the frequency with which movie characters embark on them. The storytelling possibilities are endless. Just watch National Lampoon's Vacation as an example.
Given that Lampoon is not a BBS production, this review shall not concern itself with that picture. Rather, the 1969 cult classic Easy Rider comes under inspection today. American cinema legend Dennis Hopper directs the meandering if surprisingly revelatory tale about the leather jacket adorned Wyatt (Peter Fonda), or Captain America as he is also known as in the film, and Billy (Dennis Hopper) whose attire is an apparent mishmash of cowboy and some Native American influence. Neither represents the orthodox protagonist, with their early drug deal involving some Mexicans making that abundantly clear. In one of the film's many moments in which expectations and preconceived notions about certain characters are debunked, it is revealed that this unique duo of friends have no intentions of making smuggling a full time job. In fact, the profit earned from their act will serve them on their motorcycle road trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, with the entirety of the film, notwithstanding those initial few minutes, concerning itself with the trip itself and the people they come across, such as a hitchhiker (Luke Askew) who needs a ride to his hippie-style community, a boozing lawyer (Jack Nicholson), and various other friendly or less than friendly, individuals.
There may very well have been road trip themed films which came before Easy Rider, but there is little doubt that the vast majority of those which arrived afterwards owe some sort of debt to this picture. So many of the brilliant tropes of the genre make up this 1969 classic. In addition to several transitional sequences wherein the camera admires either the two riders or the many stunningly beautiful landscapes of the southern United States, and a rocking soundtrack to accompany said sequences, the film is episodic in its nature, offering some brief misadventures which prove to be funny, dramatic, and philosophical, all depending on whom the protagonists encounter. Easy Rider is the grandfather of the road trip movie, but rather than being antiquated and eye-roll inducing, this grandfather is a cool cat.
In a smart and constant twist, one that in fact helps solidify one of the movie's many ideas, director Dennis Hopper continuously confounds audience's expectations with regards to the true nature of people throughout the movie. In some cases, specific characters appear to be exactly whom the viewer believes them to be, while other examples demonstrate how one should never limit themselves to just the looks of a person. Billy, for one, does not change very much as the story moves along. He is the quieter of the two riders (although neither speaks that much), the goofier one ( at times he seems more comfortable when interacting with children than with adults), enjoys getting high as a kite and speaks in a manner which likens him to a future popular character in American cinema, Jeff Bridges' the Dude from The Big Lebowski. For all we know, Billy might very well have been partly the inspiration for that Coen Brothers cult favourite. Despite that, he is by no means a despicable person. The drug deal at the start of the film belies his kind nature, therefore in that respect at least, Billy is not what he appears to be on the surface. Wyatt is another beast altogether. His cool Americana leather jacket, sunglasses and all around 'bad ass' first impression is a far cry from the docile, thoughtful, respectful soul which lives inside him. More than once during their voyage he demonstrates a sense of respect and admiration towards those totally different from himself, among them a farmer with about 10 kids who works hard on his land, the generosity of a hippie community who have them over for lunch, and a lawyer who is far smarter than he initially seems. There are a whole lot more to Wyatt, reserved and quiet as he may be most of time, than one is tempted to suspect. In essence, he is more rounded and fully developed than people who look like him usually are movies.
At the top of the list is surely Jack Nicholson's southern lawyer George Hanson. Wyatt, Billy and the audience first make his acquaintance in a jell cell. Is he a hardened criminal? Not exactly, although clearly he spent the night in a cell for drinking too much. Yet the guards treat him nicely, as if they know him like a neighbour. Once the hangover slowly digresses, George proves to be tremendously well spoken, educated, clever and a bit of a wild dude, southern accent and charm all included. In the continuing trend of deceiving initial appearances, George ends up being a strong companion and ally during at least a portion of the road trip to New Orleans, even though the two parties probably shared few commonalities at first. It should be noted that this is one of Nicholson's first ever roles in a major picture. Seeing a young Hopper and Nicholson share the screen together, before either knew the popularity that would help rise both to eventual stardom, particularly in the case of the latter, was quite special while watching Easy Rider. As an actor in this role, Nicholson is everything his character is: funny, quick witted and demonstrating a fascinating attention to details. A wonderfully revelatory performance, especially if those reading this article mostly know the actor for his work during the last decade or so.
On the other side of all these unexpected experiences are various townsfolk with whom the duo intermingle with sparsely who do not look kindly to them. Small town America carries with it a great many unfortunate stereotypes (meaning they are not all true, of course. Let us be rational), one of them being an aversion to greeting outsiders. More than once Wyatt and Billy, because of what they look like and above all because of what they might represent, are scoffed at, sometimes with unbridled venom. The reaction of some borders on hostile. With this in mind, one should consider a brief exchange between Billy and George around a camp fire one night. Billy is annoyed and confused that the freedom they exude is so poorly received by the people they encounter. George, sharp as always, considers that it is precisely this freedom which results in the hostility. People are afraid of it. Granted, many like to espouse romantic notions of freedom, but when confronted with people who truly live by it, confusion and fear reign, probably because someone 'being free' would not be like them, with what they are familiar and most comfortable with. This little bit of dialogue encapsulates the real conflict at the heart of the film, albeit in a manner that feels organic as opposed to didactic. Being free, going against expectations, defying the stereotypes...these things sit uncomfortably with many despite however free nations like the United States, among many others in the western world, advertise themselves as. When push comes to shove, one hopes that real freedom will emerge victorious, although more than four decades removed from Easy Rider, the struggle is still far from over. Just ask ethnic minorities, religious minorities and homosexuals for example.
There is a saying which states that the destination is not what matters, but the rather the journey. The journey Dennis Hopper invites viewers to go along with is an experience few should miss. Easy Rider is well paced, well shot, well acted, booms with an amazingly iconic soundtrack and brings some intelligence to boot. Just like the theme of the film itself, a quick glance at those two stoners on their bikes does not tell the entire story.