An R-rating because hippies are all about doing whatever they want. Dennis Hopper isn't offending you. It's you who's getting offended, man! Everything he's showing, is like...what are we talking about, man? Oh yeah! The MPAA wants to take your freedom, man!
DIRECTOR: Dennis Hopper
I want it all. Okay, I'm going to get back to that thought, but I want to point out a weird discovery I made. There is an unofficial conservative sequel to Easy Rider called Easy Rider 2: The Ride Home. I think it's a prequel or a sequel about Captain America's family. (Not the Marvel superhero. Peter Fonda's star-and-stripes bedecked motorcyclist.) I watched a trailer for that movie and it looks awwwwwwwwwwfffffuuuuulllll. I don't love Easy Rider, but the sequel seems like such a crime that it makes me want to throw up out of my ears. I just had to mention that news here because there are things that need to be said.
I've seen this movie before and part of me really wants to love it. This movie was part of the Criterion BBS Story box set and the aesthetics of hippies is always pretty great. Except when it is not. I think I might like the tone and the manic attitude of hippie filmmakers, but there's something remarkably unpolished. I feel like these movies are like listening to awesome garage bands before they get picked up by a label. There's something remarkably charming about the raw footage abandoning the sanitized Hollywood formula. But then there is that fine line between charming dirty and feeling actually dirty. I'm not saying that Easy Rider is an ugly movie. It's actually quite amazing for a lot of it. But Dennis Hopper is so obsessed with defying convention that it gets wildly annoying. For a guy who shot America from this amazing perspective and with this amazing eye, he balances it out with the dumbest forced zooms and psychedelic sequences to just pull me out of the movie. I know. He's trying to shake me out of my complacency, but there's jarring and then there's spending what goodwill has been built up by the movie prior to that moment. In the weirdest way, this makes Dennis Hopper a successful director. He did what he wanted. He wanted to me wildly uncomfortable about his movie about America.
Part of what irks me about one of my favorite eras in film is the very odd moral boundaries in the story. The protagonists are moving drugs across the country in a tricked out American flag motorcycle. That's the entire plot, so the narrative depends on one of two things: you are either accepting that a person desire to smuggle drugs is a moral quest or you are simply tuning out a plot that really sits in the background. I'm the latter. I keep forgetting that this is a movie about smuggling drugs. I feel like Hopper wants us to believe the former: the moving of drugs is a valid profession in the face of an oppressive government. Regardless, that kind of ties into the theme of defying the strong conservative government who wants to tear down the rights of these two free-thinking cyclists. I think I would hate Wyatt and Billy in real life, being the rule-obsessed drug-free and proud individual that I am. But there's something noble and inspiring about cranking on some sweet tunes and enjoying America on the back of a motorcycle while spitting on the tyranny of Johnny Law. But on the other end of that, Billy and Wyatt are kind of pathetic. I straight up don't like Billy. He seems like a terrible human being. He has an attitude towards death that extends well beyond casualness. The lives that they live are so free that they also become cool with the worst parts of humanity. There's also the 34-year-old family man that I am looking in from the outside of the compound. As happy as they all claim that they are, they all seem so broken. Just because we could have absolute freedom, does that mean that we should have absolute freedom. Their lives seem so boring to me. Easy Rider, if it did anything, forced me to look at the two sides of my soul and it makes me decide which is valuable. I guess the result is that I like watching movies about a free and hippie lifestyle, but I also know that I would absolutely despise it.
Part of this entire movement of filmmaking is experimentation. With shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, improvised dialogue really can do something wonderful with the content of a piece of art. However, Easy Rider shows how awkward it can be. I think Peter Fonda has a better handle on what would make good dialogue versus Dennis Hopper. All of what I'm about to say is completely unjust speculation, but I think that might come from the fact that Dennis Hopper might not be the best person to critique himself. I always got the vibe that Dennis Hopper was wired differently from the rest of us, be it due to drug use or just the fact that he might be a weird guy. But he's really bad. The guy, however, who makes it work, is Jack Nicholson. Jack Nicholson is in all of these BBS movies, I think. (After I'm done with the box sets, I'm going to read up on all of this.) Nicholson makes the movie really worth watching and SPOILERS his death sucks the air of the room pretty hard. He's so good as the alcoholic lawyer gives the movie to contrast these two guys. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are a pretty self-contained environment and having someone else offering a different kind of weird really works. Nicholson's lines feel scripting, so I don't know if he's just much better at improvising or what, but he draws focus from a pretty intentionally aimless movie.
The theme of the oppressive government is a pretty typical message in these kinds of movies. There is something overtly villainous about its portrayal of conservative law. I don't deny that these were very real problems that happened in regions of the country, probably most so in the South. I think I can get behind a lot of the portrayals until the absolute end. The shotgun murders seems to be filmed the way that they are for shock value. With a movie about just driving across the country, Hopper needed an ending for his movie. It could have been very peaceful with the continuing journey of Billy and Wyatt. Or it could have been the Hollywood ending. I know that Hopper was trying to shock the country with his ending. It is extremely abrupt and extremely jarring. It is also effective, but I find it wildly ironic that in such a counter-culture movie, the ending is just an exaggerated version of the establishment's ending. Having the protagonists die as a means to end a movie is pretty standard. It is what people throw in there when there is no real ending to a conflict. Part of that conflict is that these boys are against society. There's no reasonable situation where the two boys are going to change society because they are passive protesters. Their very existence is what makes people mad, but that's all they really do to upset others. They aren't fighting for change or speaking publicly about injustice. Dennis Hopper gives people the finger and Peter Fonda is hanging out with him. The idea that someone outside of Jack Nicholson (who was on their team to start with) would have been absurd. As a critic, it rubs me the wrong way. But again, the last shot was extremely well made, so why does it bother me so much?
The biggest moment that rubs me the wrong way is the psychedelic trip in the graveyard. I don't love shocking for shocking's sake and that's a moment that was meant to rile America's feathers. Showing nudity and blasphemous images is childish. The weird part is that I don't really understand's Hopper's views on religion. He starts the movie with a small family praying and they are the nicest characters in the movie. There are a bunch of small nods to the value of religion throughout the story, but the end completely defiles that logic. Showing sexual actions around the Virgin Mary seems like it is immature, but more so, it is contrary to the message that was established early in the film. Is the message that you should be respectful to the faithful to their faces, especially if they come to your aid, but then disrespect what they find sacred when you are enjoying yourself? The disrespect doesn't even stem from a character arc with the characters. It is simply two man children enjoying the company of prostitutes while on drugs after their friend dies. Where is the moral choice that comes out of the disrespect of a culture? Part of this probably lies with the double standard that is associated with being a widely accepted religion in America. I don't want to get too political, but nothing rubs me the wrong way when it comes to this kind of double-standard political protest.
I always want to like this movie more than I do. It does a better job of putting me in a mood than conveying an experience. I never love the characters, but I love that look at America. I'll probably watch it again in five years and have the same opinion, but I will never probably hold this movie close to my heart.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.