Review of Easy Rider, Directed by Dennis Hopper
I wrote earlier of my shameful admiration for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That movie, released in 1969, is a classic of the era, a milestone of subversive cinema, a major way-station on the road to counter-cultural celebration of anti-heroes. It won lots of awards and adorns the lists of greatest movies. It is also hilarious and awesome.
Easy Rider was also released in 1969, is also a classic of the era, is also on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest movies of all time (#84), and has one-up on Butch: Roger Ebert gave it a place on his cannon of Great Movies. There is an important difference. Easy Rider is unwatchable tripe.
Easy Rider is a simple road trip movie and buddy drama. Two guys on motorcycles sell drugs and trek to Mardi Gras. They smoke weed, ride, meet hippies and rednecks, ride some more, drop acid, and keep riding. Shenanigans and tragedy ensue. We spend a lot of time watching these guys riding their motorcycles, admiring scenery, listening to classic ‘60s rock. The penultimate scene descends into an incoherent surrealist representation of an acid trip.
The movie was nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay, which is inexplicable, and for Best Supporting Actor, which is explicable. Jack Nicholson turned in the performance that made him famous as a drunk lawyer that falls in with the hippie bikers, smokes weed, rides shotgun, and [spoiler] is violently beaten to death in a horrific scene that must have inspired Martin Scorsese in Casino. Nicholson is the only interesting thing in the movie, and he’s onscreen for all of fifteen minutes.
The movie was popular because it captured the feeling of being a rebellious outcast. The bikers are refused a room at a hotel, looked at warily by strangers, and are met with violent hostility the further south they ride (the movie indulgences in gross stereotypes of southerners). They are happy to reciprocate the world’s rejection. “It’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace,” says one character. They revel in their status as outcasts, as did the audience that celebrated the film. Better, apparently, to enjoy the freedom of unemployment.
Ebert wrote in 2004 that watching the movie today was like a “time capsule.” The movie is interesting because of what it says about the audiences that loved the movie then, that took the film as an articulation of their era, and that today continue to celebrate it as an icon. Ebert again: “It became one of the rallying-points of the late ’60s, a road picture and a buddy picture, celebrating sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and the freedom of the open road.”
What else is there to say? I try hard to find something positive to say about even the most repellent, obscurantist, or pretentious film. I assume that if its on a list of great movies somewhere, anywhere, there must be some good in it. If I, as a rank amateur, cannot see it, the fault must be mine, not the movie’s.
I tried to find merit in Easy Rider. Really, I did. I found none.