Written by: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern
Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Karen Black
Societies go through cycles where certain looks and lifestyles have their lifespan where they become all of the rage and then suddenly become unacceptable. The warning signs never appear as expected but at times it arrives in a blunt and forceful manner. This passage of time and jarring shift gets an examination through the pensive Easy Rider.
Riding through the country on their trusted bikes, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) complete a smuggling job, which paid them handsomely. With this money, they hope to have a good time as they make their way to New Orleans for the annual tradition of Mardi Gras. On their way there they encounter several people and go through towns to show how the landscape of American culture begins to shift in a way looking to leave them behind.
Without much characterization, Easy Rider seeks more so to serve as a mood piece about the change of America. No longer does free living of the 1960s apply, which these two men represent. They have nothing tethering them to living a domestic lifestyle, they just enjoy riding around on their bike and living life to the fullest. It may have worked for them in the past but the recent shift not only makes it not conducive to this new way of life, but it gets to the point where it outright attacks and mocks them.
Apparently, haircuts said plenty about people at this time as Billy donned his luscious long hair onto his shoulders. This becomes a point of contention in several of the towns they stop with some of the locals getting outright hostile towards the two men about their appearance and demeanor. Billy and Wyatt simply just have to breathe when they enter the towns to begin to receive criticism and dirty looks. It does not come from anything they necessarily say or do, but rather what they represent and how certain sections of the population want to eradicate it.
As they make their way to New Orleans, several segments of the movie shows them simply riding as they enjoy the wind on their face while driving through the beautiful landscape of America. The road signifies their only safe haven at this point as the attitudes of the people show nothing but resentment for them, but the beautiful land remains the same. Kicking along with the soundtrack accompanying their travels, Easy Rider succeeds in creating the melancholic but also invigorating mood permeating the minds of these two men. They now know what the next pit stop will bring them but for those moments they ride on the open road, the world can be as simple as their bike and the pavement ahead of them.
While the story centers on these two gentlemen, they receive company on this ride, which includes a hippy who takes them to his commune and then George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), the lawyer. Two men of different backgrounds and social status, they both reflect the decision making of Billy and Wyatt in the way they freely allow others to join in on the experience of driving through the country. The hippy gets on as a hitchhiker to which the men happily oblige and they meet George when they get arrested for such a minuscule offense to which they agree to take him along for the trip to New Orleans. In either sense, adding these two individuals on their drive do nothing to help their situation. If anything, it makes it exponentially worse, especially when George tags along.
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper portray these lead roles and do well to establish the mood of the piece as they go with the motions with everything happening. With all of the animosity they receive, they rarely react to it because it does not go with their coda of trying to just enjoy life. Fonda’s Wyatt has a much more laid-back approach between the two by always going with the flow while Billy seems to be a bit more cautious. It shows in the moments where they pick up the hitchhikers and they ride on Wyatt’s bike rather than Billy’s. When they get attacked, he gets prepared much quicker brandishing a weapon ready to fight. Much can be read into their points of view because the story does not provide the appropriate backstory to fully explain what has led them to their current mindsets.
While it can be slow and a bit too contemplative at times, Easy Rider has a definitive message and delivers it in a very specific manner. It displays the shifting landscape of a new America as a new decade begins in the 70s as the 60s attitudes begin to wash away into the past. These two men find themselves right in the middle and must either reject the new way of living outright or suffer the consequences depicted in this film.