Tossing wristwatches away, two bikers hit the road to find America in Dennis Hopper's anti-establishment classic. After a major cocaine sale to an L.A. connection (Phil Spector), free-wheeling potheads Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt, aka Captain America (Peter Fonda, who also produced), motor eastward to party at Mardi Gras before "retiring" to Florida with the riches concealed in Wyatt's stars-and-stripes gas tank. As they ride through the Southwest, they take a hitchhiker (Luke Askew) to a struggling hippie commune before they get thrown in a small-town jail for "parading without a permit." Their cellmate, drunken ACLU lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson, replacing Rip Torn), does them a "groovy" favor by getting them out of jail and then decides to join them. Babbling about Venusians, George discovers the joys of smoking grass, but an encounter with Southern rednecks soon proves how right he is about the danger posed by Billy's and Wyatt's unfettered life in a country that has lost its ideals. With the straight world closing in, Wyatt and Billy try to revel in New Orleans with some LSD and hookers (Karen Black and Toni Basil), but the acid trip is shot through with morbidity. Once they reach Florida, Billy raves about attaining the American dream; Wyatt, however, knows the truth: "We blew it."
Produced and directed by two Hollywood iconoclasts with under a half-million non-studio dollars, Easy Rider shook up the languishing movie industry when it grossed over 19 million dollars in 1969; it captured the spirit of the times as it woke Hollywood up to the power of young audiences and socially relevant movies, along with such other landmarks of the late '60s as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and 2001. Shot on location by Laszlo Kovacs, Easy Rider eschewed old-fashioned Hollywood polish for documentary-style immediacy, and it enhanced its casual feel with improvised dialogue and realistically "stoned" acting. With a soundtrack of contemporary rock songs by Jimi Hendrix, the Band, and Steppenwolf to complete the atmosphere, Easy Rider was hailed for capturing the increasingly violent Vietnam-era split between the counterculture and the repressive Establishment. Experiencing the "shock of recognition," youth audiences embraced Easy Rider's vision of both the attractions and the limits of dropping out, proving that audience's box-office power and turning Nicholson into a movie star. The momentarily hip Academy nominated Nicholson for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and Fonda, Hopper, and Terry Southern for their screenplay. Though none of its imitators would match its impact, Easy Rider remains one of the seminal works of late '60s Hollywood both for its trailblazing legacy and its sharply perceptive portrait of its chaotic times.
Lucia Bozzola, All Movie Guide