Conjuring symbol and superficiality from the stars and stripes of the American flag, Easy Rider recognizes the fickleness of idealism, exposing hypocrisy on both sides of the social schism. Through its fetishization of patriotic iconography, it illustrates a duality within our protagonists, treating their rebellion and wanderlust as inadvertent products of the capitalist system, a counter-cultural cover for egotism and avarice.
Buying their financial freedom with a clandestine drug deal, motorcyclists Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) abandon their watches and set forth for Mardi Gras, treating the tranquility of the open road and the warmth of a campfire as panacea for the stresses of urban life. Closing each day of riding with a twilight discussion, the pair share stoned ruminations on identity and environment, extolling the virtues of the burgeoning Back-to-the-land movement and the humbleness of the independent farmer. Their words feign sincerity, enough so to convince communitarians of their willingness to “drop out,” but their spirits are still stuck in the material world, and each paranoid rant about their stockpile of cash (suggestively stashed in a star-spangled gas tank) and staccato editorial transition propels them closer to ruination.
The conviviality of improvised dialogue and groove of the zeitgeist-summoning soundtrack belie a swelling sense of dread, personified by a pair of hitchhikers that alter the expedition’s course and predict the travelers’ futures. Their unnamed and earliest passenger (Luke Askew) forewarns of the devastation of time and beckons the duo to his farming collective, but their willingness to sample the fruits of his community’s labor without toiling in the field demonstrates an opportunistic attitude, one that will lure them back to comforts of consumerism.
Their subsequent pillion (Jack Nicholson) recognizes the revolutionary nature of true autonomy and the constraints of “antiquated systems” like law and religion, but saddles himself with the burden of the bottle, settling for a debauched existence in lieu of adult obligation. His death, particularly what it provokes within Wyatt and Billy, inspires an aesthetic and intellectual shift, abandoning the earth tones and zephyrs of the film’s first half and perverting the marvels of the American southwest into a hazy, interminable terror.
Birthing a dichotomy between the work’s halves, László Kovács commences with the benevolent yellows and clay reds of Arizona’s deserts, sapping the pallet of color and narrowing the scope as the pilgrims approach New Orleans, culminating in an acid-tinged, monochromatic cemetery freakout. Though the introductory passages hold true to the Western tradition of azure skies and vast canyons, the succeeding vision possesses a pioneering experimentality, uncovering psychic trauma through gauzy grain, incongruity, and the optically arcane.
This stylistic contrast can be concussive, but within this bewilderment lies the crux of the Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s bipartisan argument, which exhibits America’s political factions as opposing sides of the same coin and rebukes their respective ardor for violence and vanity. The erroneous legacy of Bohemian rallying cry, presumably proliferated by rapacious marketers, ignores the complexity and solemnity of the work, reducing it to the intellectual dollar-bin of passé novelty. By championing centrism and appealing for clemency over furor, Easy Rider liberated itself from the mire of epoch and nostalgia.
Easy Rider (Columbia Pictures, 1969)
Directed by Dennis Hopper
Written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern
Photographed by László Kovács