Besides The Godfather (honestly, the famous “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” line is now just an Italian gangster cliché), I can’t think of a single film that’s been more of an easy target for parody than Easy Rider. The image of the two rebellious hipsters on giant motorbikes, stars-and-stripes helmets glinting in the morning sun, has been lampooned so much that it’s hard to see what impact it even had on America in the first place.
What people often forget, however, is that Easy Rider isn’t a cheesy ode to patriotism, but actually a cynical affirmation of the surprisingly bleak path the country was taking at the time. Admittedly, it’s also a tad overrated, but I’ll get to that later.
Right from Rider’s opening scene, its frank, rebellious nature is on full display. The MPAA rating system had only been in place for 1 year before the film’s 1969 release (before that, all films had to be censored to PG or PG-13 levels of edginess as to not offend the general public), so first seeing our main characters—free-spirited pals Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper)—as they’re snorting multiple lines of cocaine must have shocked conservative audiences everywhere.
The two get a lot of cash from smuggling said drugs, so they decide to hide it in Wyatt’s motorbike and head down to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. On their way, they encounter a variety of interesting characters (including a group of hippies who really dig “free love”—in other words, open relationships), though they’re nothing when compared to the equally restless George Hanson (Jack Nicholson—yes, that Jack Nicholson), who the duo meet in prison.
As you can see, there isn’t much of a plot to Easy Rider. It is slightly disjointed and aimless as a result, but that wouldn’t be much of an issue if it wasn’t so, so tedious at points. Let’s face it: even if they did break vital new ground in American cinema, some parts of this film (particularly when the newfound trio pointlessly discuss aliens over a campfire while smoking pot) just drag really hard.
Luckily, Rider’s bold, subversive triumphs ultimately make these occasional bumps in the road far more forgivable. Filmed on a very tiny budget of $360,000, the great soundtrack and stunning cinematography make it seem far more professional than that, effectively proving that you don’t need a truckload of money in order to make something genuine and unique.
What the film deserves to be remembered for the most, however, is the honest, documentary-esque look it takes at ‘60s (counter)culture, and all the people that shaped it. They’re all trying to forge their own path, to take hold of their own lives, but as the shock ending grimly showcases, it’s just not enough.
Such nihilism seemed unlikely to resonate with the general public, but resonate it did—the $60 million gross catapulted Nicholson into superstardom, and cemented Easy Rider’s status as a true masterpiece of American cinema. It isn’t, but at the end of the day, it’s satisfyingly close enough.