I fully understand that the 1969 motorcycle road film “Easy Rider” is considered a motion picture classic. I also understand that the movie introduced a new style of filmmaking that had a great impact on the industry. But while so many film critics and movie fans hold “Easy Rider” in high regard, I found it to be a flat, muddled, and occasionally annoying picture that hasn’t aged well at all. At the time of its release it was a relevent film examining such things as the hippie movement, the drug culture, and the late 60’s political environment. On the surface it may sound like an intelligent and thought-provoking experience. But it’s banal presentation, clunky storytelling, and overly cynical portrait of America did nothing to draw me in or keep my interest.
“Easy Rider” is a buddy movie about two motorcycle riding potheads named Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper). It sounds like the ingredients for a stoner comedy but they are actually treated seriously. They’re free-spirited counterculturalists who are out to capture their idea of live-by-your-own-rules Americanism. After smuggling some cocaine across the border, the two sell it in Los Angeles for a large amount of money. They then use that money for a road trip across the southwest and eventually to Louisiana where they hope to make it in time for Mardi Gras. They travel from location to location with just their bikes, a gas tank full of hidden money, and apparently a bushel of marijuana.
Just like any other road movie, “Easy Rider” is more about the journey than the destination. As they travel, Wyatt and Billy see some beautiful sites and encounter a wide assortment of people. They are helped by a rancher who is struggling to make ends meet. They pickup a hitchhiker (Luke Askew) who leads them to a hippie commune filled with people who resemble space aliens more than human beings. They befriend an alcoholic civil liberties lawyer named George played by Jack Nicholson. They are arrested by small town police officers and harassed by intolerant locals. Yet the one constant seems to be their love for pot. It seems like during every stop they take time for a smoke especially at night as they sit around their camp fire rambling while under the influence. The story ultimately becomes about Wyatt and Billy’s search for freedom, freedom that turns out to be much more elusive than they thought.
“Easy Rider” is basically the hippie movement’s self-portrait and it looks at everything through their eyes. But it comes across as a sanctimonious and often times self-indulgent lecture that doesn’t have near the substance it wants to have. One prominent movie critic who is older than me praised the film saying “Seeing the movie years later is like opening a time capsule.” I guess I can see where the movie would have a stronger impact on you if you were a part of those years or if you’re sympathetic to the hippie culture. But as someone seeing it for the first time it feels incredibly dated and it definitely comes across as a drug-induced hallucination at times. It does dabble in a few interesting themes and the cinematography is impressive especially considering the tiny budget. But I never connected with “Easy Rider” or its characters.
This is a movie that is considered by many to be great. In fact, it’s #84 on AFI’s Top 100 Movies of all time. I don’t see it. Maybe it’s the overwrought counterculture message or maybe it’s just my personal disconnect with this element of that time period (I was born is 1971), but “Easy Rider” became an uninteresting and sometimes tedious undertaking. There are several scenes including a terribly annoying drug high in a cemetery and numerous campfire ramblings that had me desperately wanting to hit the fast-forward button. What little screenplay there is does nothing to help the film and the final few scenes of the movie feel cheaply pasted together. We do get some pretty camera work and a breakout performance from Jack Nicholson. But that’s not enough make me want to watch “Easy Rider” again. No thanks, I’ll pass.