A film important to and influential in the flower-power late ’60s, Easy Rider now seems like a narcissistic hodgepodge of travelogue and passion play. New Orleans–bound bikers Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Fonda) aren’t stand-ins for a generation so much as zeitgeist-fashioned shadow puppets, empty vessels peddling discontent and martyrdom. Hopper’s offscreen transformation from stoned longhair to retirement-fund shill is an instructive parallel in that there ultimately appears to be little difference between his two “characters.” In life (both real and reel), he didn’t betray Easy Rider’s principles so much as retool them to a prevailing populace’s clean-and-sober desires.
What the film’s principles are is anyone’s guess—there’s ambiguity and then there’s Easy Rider’s brand of acid-addled obscurity. On-the-road musical montages alternate with often-improvised dialogue sequences, all to monotonous and unenlightening effect. Alcoholic lawyer George Hanson (Nicholson, in a performance too showy for its own good) voices cheap nostalgia for America’s supposedly long-lost golden days. And Wyatt’s presumptive, much-dissected summation, “We blew it,” is the mock-repentant downer popped to counter the film’s stylistic and thematic excesses. All this just moments before a couple of gun-totin’ rednecks raise an otherwise derivative junkie’s tale to the fire-and-brimstone level of myth.