Easy Rider is possibly the definitive movie for counter-culture America and even helped mark the start of New Wave Hollywood. An almost semi-surrealist, existential road film, Easy Rider is a story about Wyatt and Billy (played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) travelling from Los Angeles to New Orleans after smuggling cocaine from Mexico and selling it off in LA. There’s a lack of plot in this film that reminds me of how one of my favorite films, After Hours, is structured. Each event and character that presents himself throughout the journey is used as a supplement to revealing the layers of the characters and the message as opposed to being centered around a central plot.
From their first encounter on a ranch in the southwestern US, we see the symbolism for those people in our society who have completely lost out on their dreams and ambitions and seem ok with settling with that. When they tell the old man, they’re from “LA” he has no idea what that is until they clarify it means “Los Angeles.” This man is so out of the loop, and while that comes with being an aging man living off the land, I think it was meant to display the ignorance and oblivion of all these people who have given up and settled. After all he claimed that his reason or not making it to LA was “you know…” His Phil Dunphy ass let life take it’s course on him instead of the other way around and he’s cool with it, but hey, his loss.
Next, they pick up a hippie hitchhiker who is very much like them, but has even more distaste for society than them. I mean, this guy says he’s from “A city. It doesn’t matter which one, because they’re all the same.” Like that is just screaming to be on an Urban Outfitters t-shirt. While all he represents is the ultimate counter-culture, likely to give a sense of relatability to the viewers of the time, he does give them something that will shape their entire outlook by the end of the film, LSD.
While riding through the south, Wyatt and Billy get thrown in jail for riding their bikes through a parade route. This leads to them meeting local, alcoholic attorney George Hanson, played by a 30-year-old Jack Nicholson. As both director and actor, Dennis Hopper characterizes the symbolism of Nicholson’s character into one word: “dude.” Wyatt tells an uninformed George that “Dude means a regular person.” That’s exactly what George is. He’s the everyday man who make up 90% of everyone we know. He’s taken the traditional societal route that provides fixed income and all that nice stuff, but seeing that he was in jail for having another alcohol induced, Frank Gallagher-esque evening, it seems he’s not so content with that life.
When George finds out that Billy and Wyatt are going to Mardi Gras he decides to tag along since he said he’s tried six or seven times before to go, but never made it further than state line. There’s no context as to why he never made it, but then again for most people there isn’t. On George’s last night with the two, he delivers the most beautiful monologue about true freedom that no words I could write would do justice to. So, here’s the scene below.
Unfortunately, after that beautiful monologue concluded and the three went to sleep, they were jumped and George ended up dying because of the beating induced by the locals who didn’t want them there. The same people that George had just finished describing in his monologue. From there, Wyatt and Billy continue to New Orleans where they meet a couple of hookers and trip balls in a cemetery. Soooo sick. Again, gonna put the scene for this one down below too, because this is by far one of the coolest scenes in cinematic history I’ve come across.
Beyond the pleasing aesthetics that come from the trip, we see the true core of everyone. From the two prostitutes who claim they want to conceive a child and want to be beautiful, we see their true driving force that lead to their form of rebellion. With Billy, we see him screaming “I want to be loved” while Wyatt is undergoing the most strenuous terror in the trip. Wyatt is plagued by both the pressures of religion, the absence of his father, and the disdain he has for his mother. None of these three things were ever mentioned earlier in the film nor did we know anything about any of our characters’ past. But, within just a few minutes we learned everything about these characters we’ve been travelling across the country with.
On their journey out of New Orleans, Billy and Wyatt face a similar, but more intense, fate that good ol’ George also faced. Death at the hands of someone scared by our friends’ symbolism of freedom. This existential end gives us a notion that there might not be any part of our country that isn’t plagued by violence or hatred. Whether that’s true or not depends on us.