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Movie Reviews

Easy Rider



Released: June 26th 1969(UK)

Director: Dennis Hopper

Stars: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hoper

Certificate: 18 (UK)

Reviewer: Patrick Campbell

The great thing about life – particularly in regards to the silver screen – is that everybody has differing tastes. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is a horrible cliché but it is true, and the world would be a boring place if we all felt the same about things. It is very common for two people to watch the same film and come out of it with opposing opinions. I hated ‘Sin City’, my friend loved it. Another friend dismisses ‘The Godfather’ as “dull” whereas I think it’s cinematic perfection. With this in mind, I approached ‘Easy Rider’ (1969) with a sense of unease and trepidation, despite its cult success and critical acclaim. Sadly, those fears were quickly realised.

The film centres on two bikers – Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) – who are making their way across the south of America. Funded by drug money (which Wyatt stuffs into a tube in his bike’s fuel tank) the pair hit the roads and journey east across the country from Los Angeles to New Orleans in the hope that they’ll reach their destination in time for Mardi Gras. Road movies – particularly those without a tangible, straight forward plot – are always difficult to get right. Too many interesting and outlandish experiences and the movie loses credibility, too few and it’s difficult to hold the viewer’s attention. Sadly, ‘Easy Rider’ falls into the latter category, an insufferably boring scene in a commune halfway through the film a notable lowlight. The men fall foul of the police after jokingly joining a parade marching through a small town, and are promptly thrown into jail where they meet young lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) who requests that he travels to Louisiana with them. George is the most interesting character in the film – another complex yet fascinating figure played by Nicholson – and it’s regrettable that his limited time on screen comes to an end so abruptly. Having lost George, the pair continue on their way. Will they make it to the Mardi Gras festivities? And where do they go from there?

‘Easy Rider’ isn’t plot driven, so a neat summary of its events does it a disservice. Instead it’s a film about existentialism and freedom, about lifestyle, about men daring to kick-start a cultural revolution at a time when the 1960s hippie movement was prominent but beginning to wane. The problem with that however is the fact that throughout the film it comes across as being thoroughly insincere. Maybe this is because we’re watching forty years on and its power and impact has been stripped away, maybe it’s because the film hasn’t aged well, but it’s near impossible to take the pair seriously or feel any emotional investment towards them. Near the end of the film, Wyatt does offer us some hope however. Sitting at a campfire, he tells Billy that “We blew it”, a line wonderful in its ambiguity and poignancy. Yet it isn’t built upon, and for all their efforts at achieving higher thinking and finding a new way of life, it’s the only remotely philosophical sentence in the whole movie. Why bother with philosophy when you can drop acid?

In a strange way, ‘Easy Rider’ reminded me of Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Sunrise’. Both films feature young people travelling, both films are set in distinctive locations and timeframes, and both sets of characters question their existence and try to understand the world around them at the time. The difference between the two is that, in the latter, Jesse and Celine come across as eminently likable, whereas Wyatt and Billy can be seen as two drug-dealing, unemployed, fit-for-nothing bums. Perhaps how you see the pair is similar to how you read Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’. If you think that’s a literary masterpiece with something pertinent to say, you’ll like this film. If you think it’s 280 pages of self-indulgent, drug-addled pointless twaddle, then ‘Easy Rider’ is best left well alone.

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