Cast: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson
Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Adapted Screenplay (Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern)
SUMMARY: Two men, Wyatt, or “Captain America” (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) have just smuggled a packet of cocaine from Mexico to Los Angeles, where they sell it for a large cash payment. The two decide that they would like to go to Mardi Gras, and, with the money hidden in the gas tank of Wyatt’s motorcycle, they begin to ride across the country (Billy also has a motorcycle). During the trip, the two meet many different people, some of them welcoming and others hostile. Wyatt and Billy are obvious members of the counterculture: both have long hair, and their clothing is different, particularly Billy’s (fringed buckskin). The first stop on their journey is at a small farm, where they are welcomed by the farmer and his family. Wyatt seems to be particularly struck by the way the family lives, even though they are poor. After leaving, the men come across a hitchhiker, who ends up riding on the back of Wyatt’s motorcycle. They take the man, a hippie, to his commune, where they also spend several hours. They watch the commune members planting crops, then share in the very simple meal. At the end of their visit, the hitchhiker invites Wyatt and Billy to stay, but Wyatt decides to leave. Billy is also anxious to leave, as he is far less taken by the hippie lifestyle. As they depart, the hitchhiker gives Wyatt a small packet of LSD. The men then ride until they come into a small town where a parade is occurring. When they join in the parade, the two are arrested and put into jail. There, they meet local lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), whose drinking habits have made him a frequent visitor to the jail. When Wyatt and Billy befriend George, he helps them get released; when he learns that they are heading to Mardi Gras, he decides to go with them (he retrieves his old football helmet for safety).
The three camp that night, and the next morning, make their way into Louisiana. When they stop to eat a diner, the locals inside have radically different reactions: the teenage girls are fascinated, but the men, both young and old, are vehemently opposed to them (clearly thinking they’re hippies). These men make repeated threatening remarks, and after listening to this for some time, and without ever seeing a waitress, the men leave. They camp again that night, but in the middle of the night are attacked by a group of local men. All three are beaten, but the men scatter when Billy pulls a knife. While Wyatt and Billy receive only minor injuries, George is killed. Wyatt and Billy continue into New Orleans, where they visit a brothel recommended by George. They take the two prostitutes out to Mardi Gras, then to a cemetery, where all four indulge in the LSD from the hitchhiker. Unfortunately, all four have a bad trip. Wyatt and Billy camp that night, and while Billy expresses satisfaction with the trip, Wyatt sees it as a waste. The next day, they take off for Florida. On the road, they come across two more hostile locals, who decide to scare the motorcyclists by waving a shotgun at them (while driving in a truck). They taunt Billy, who gives them the bird: the local with the shotgun then fires at Billy. Billy is seriously wounded, and crashes his bike on the side of the road. The locals continue driving, but Wyatt turns around to check on Billy. He covers Billy in his jacket, then gets on his bike to find help. Just then, the locals turn the truck around and come back toward Wyatt. When they meet, the truck passenger shoots at Wyatt. He hits the gas tank of the motorcycle, causing it to explode immediately, killing Wyatt in the process. The truck then continues down the road as the camera pans out.
MY TAKE: This movie is famous for putting Jack Nicholson on the map, but it’s also regarded as a landmark because of its depiction of the culture. Personally, I thought most of it was really boring. There’s huge stretches of just Wyatt and Billy riding their motorcycles down the road, which is not too thrilling. Their various stops are pretty routine: they come across some people that like them, and others that don’t. Jack Nicholson does steal the show, both for the way he looks riding a motorcycle in an old football helmet, and for the dry stories and jokes he tells. I was really disappointed when he was killed. The scene where Wyatt, Billy and the prostitutes (one of whom is played by Toni Basil, she of future “Mickey” fame) have an LSD trip in the cemetery, while probably a pretty accurate portrayal, is boring and way too long. They’re tripping, I get it, let’s move on. I do not need to see all the weird-ass distortions of the view to get the point. Aside from the scenes with George, the only other good part for me was the ending, which I did not see coming. I did not expect the man to actually shoot at Billy; then, when they panicked, I thought they would either come back and try to help, or flee the scene. It was only when they got about twenty feet from Wyatt that I realized that it would be simpler (in an amoral sense) to get rid of the only witness. Then, not only do they shoot Wyatt, they completely blow up the motorcycle. The movie literally ends with a (very abrupt) bang.