“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”
There’s no beating around the bush when it comes to Easy Rider. It remains a cultural landmark not only of the counterculture of the ’60s, but it also stands tall as one of the Great American Road movies, albeit from a very specific perspective.
It opens with a dope deal. First, picking up the product below the border. Then, with planes taking off overheard — they make their connection with their contact (Phil Spector) — jamming away to the conspicuous “Pusher” by Steppenwolf. In a matter of minutes, our two cult heroes have got it made. They have a pile of cash for their troubles, and they’re ready to take on America.
Fonda’s Captain America is the epitome of disaffected cool — a triumphant symbol of a restless generation sticking it to the man — living on their own time and by their own standards as they see fit. It’s a new paradigm of manhood. But in his own way, he does have a certain idealism. He wouldn’t be taking to the road or living in this manner if he wasn’t driven by something: his own version of the American Dream.
Dennis Hopper’s performance is pervaded by a paranoid chatter, laughing in fits and starts when he’s not taking a drag. For now, they’re as light as a feather cruising down the highways and byways lazily with a steady array of classic tunes availing them with an anthemic backdrop. Take “Born to Be Wild,” “I Wasn’t Born to Follow,” and my personal favorite, “The Weight,” and there’s no looking back as we get to breathe in the fresh air and appreciate this land that was made for you and me. It’s during this invigorating outset one is made to appreciate America’s diverse geography.
Out of these open-air beginnings, Easy Rider becomes tantamount to a cinematic drug trip through flickering images, lens flairs, psychedelic rock, and certainly a copious amount of drugs. It’s composed of vignettes of many shapes and sizes coloring the journey of Captain American and Billy.
They’re thrust up against all sorts of lifestyles. In one moment they stopover in a man’s barn to remedy a busted tire, and the backcountry farmer shares his table with them. He’s contented in life with a Catholic wife and tons of children.
Another moment they pick up a hitchhiker who leads them to a rural commune bustling with kiddos and bleating livestock. The folks there are looking to subsist off the land, even as they share and share alike — holding carnivalesque stage performances for evening entertainment. It’s yet another form of the good life — living in solidarity and unity with one another.
However, the boys also butt up against the complete opposite subset of society. By this, I mean yokums suspicious of long-haired dudes they don’t understand in the slightest. They might as well be from the planet Uranus. Cutting a path to the Mardi Gras festivities, the boys wind up imprisoned for parading without a permit thanks to “weirdo hicks.”
Their jail bunkmate, George (Jack Nicholson in one of his early triumphs) is a rich-kid southern boy who nevertheless extends the olive branch. They come to appreciate one another. He’s as fed up with the scissor-happy locals beautifying America and subsequently making everyone look like Yul Brynner, a bald-pated Russian, I might add.
Furthermore, they partake in campfire chit-chat babbling about satellites and UFOs while getting totally stoned out of their brains. It feels like the beginner’s guide to writing such dialogue — mostly informed by ad-libs and circuitous digressions.
A roadside cafe becomes another microcosm of small-town America, and they stir up quite the maelstrom of gossip. If there’s anything close to empathy for the two bikers, it’s garnered in scenes like these because we understand what it is to be considered a social pariah on what feels like little fault of their own.
George is perceptive when he wants to be and also an affable companion on the road with his dorky football helmet. I’ve rarely appreciated Nicholson more. But he also has no illusions about how guys like Captain America and Bobby fit into the social order.
He sees that people are scared of what they represent: freedom. Because talking about freedom and being free are two different things. As an esoteric concept, individual freedom is nice to talk about even comfortable, but what about seeing an individual free — totally uninhibited and living by their own cadence. It’s true even the soothsayers are eventually silenced.
They make it out to a choice brothel with “prime rib” in memoriam to a dear departed friend, though it quickly turns into a night on the town for Mardi Gras. If we can say it, these are the most spontaneous sequences of the movie. Everything else feels sincere in its attempts at truth and authenticity, but it’s in this footage during the real Mardi Gras where everything starts to meld together. They wander around goofing off and making out with their new companions (Karen Black & Toni Basil).
Of course, this “reality” culminates in the infamous acid trip sprawled out in a cemetery. A solemn girl recites The Apostle’s Creed and Lord’s Prayer as they lose themselves totally to the psychedelics. It feels like an act of desecration but also an unveiling of all their fears and anxieties. Fonda clutches a statue and goes to pieces dialoguing with his long-deceased mother.
The soundtrack may only sound like audio atmosphere in the beginning but more and more it overtly informs the beats of the story. As they rebound and make their way forward, Bob Dylan’s “Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding” becomes another uncanny expression of both their private and public angst. They all feel in a state of unceasing paranoid helplessness.
At its most compelling, the picture is like this perplexing tableau of performance art, indie slap-dash filmmaking, and docudrama. The production was notorious — Fonda and Hopper as director and producer respectively were at each other’s throats even as they remained the driving forces behind the film from its conception. And far from just portraying Hippies being brutalized by podunk America, it has the ring of truth.
Formalistically it’s informed by jump-cut-infused, schizophrenic pacing. One can only imagine what it might have felt like in the 3-hour monolith Hopper originally had cut. In its theatrical form, it feels more impressionistic and light leaving us stunned more than we are stultified because it never totally loses its resonance.
It runs parallel to Bonnie and Clyde — the sense of these outlaw heroes being decimated by the establishment — although in Easy Rider the retribution seems even more needlessly violent and unelicited. George’s caution never seemed more prescient. People are scared of seeing other people acting free.
But also thematically, Easy Rider fits with The Graduate and any other movies capturing the generational shift with youth breaking out of the shackles of the past, looking to exert and define their own road ahead. It just so happens the road ahead can be daunting even unnerving when the American Dream seems to have gone totally awry.
Easy Rider is another lodestone in the cultural conversation. You can hardly begin to grapple with the moment without bumping up against it, and the movie suggests so much in its many facets, through its decisions — its sense of truth and freedom — but also by what it doesn’t say. It makes the world out to be galvanizing and terrifying all at the same time. Far from just being about the corrosive nature of mind-altering drugs, sometimes humanity can be equally merciless. Take your pick. These dudes couldn’t win.