"Oh yeah, that's right, that's what it's all about, all right. But talkin' about it and bein' it, that's two different things. I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. 'Course, don't ever tell anybody that they're not free 'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, they're gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em."
I've seen this movie with a lot of people over the past twenty years. One comment from many that stands out is that the story of our characters does not seem to lead anywhere. I believe that is the point.
Peter Fonda's Wyatt (aka Captain America), and Dennis Hopper's Billy are in search of freedom. Wyatt is introspective, looking for something to bring him in contact with the America he believes is out there somewhere. Billy is satisfied to just enjoy every moment of every passing day. He doesn't want to be brought down by the burdens of responsibility. Billy just wants to have a party and the trip to New Orleans is his obsession, even as Wyatt often gives thought to staying in places along the way.
"You know, Billy. We blew it."
The final dialogue between the two primary characters paints a picture that foreshadows their end. Billy is pleased with the big money they made from a major drug deal at the beginning of the movie and the whirlwind adventure the money financed. Wyatt realizes the trip was the wrong road. They were never free.
Wyatt's self-discovery takes him from empty wondering to places where blanks are filled in. He isn't sure what he wants out of life, but along the way he comes into contact with people and places that stimulate his imagination and give him ideas.
"You've got a nice place. It's not every man that can live off the land, you know. You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud."
That is Wyatt's dream, and as he meets the horse rancher and his family, he talks of how much he appreciates "their spread" and how this man can sustain himself and his family with just the land they live on. We can see how much Wyatt wants to be a part of this, but Billy is always urging him forward. All Billy wants is to get to New Orleans and Mardi Gras. He wants to do drugs, drink and be merry. We can imagine Wyatt and Billy as the representation of Sixties ideals that came into constant conflict.
The rancher lives off his land, works hard and supports a rather large family (this fellow is not using birth control at all). On their next stop they find a commune where a group of young hippies are trying to turn a piece of horrible, dry land into their own piece of paradise. Many of the kids have wandered off, finding the work too hard and the conditions too difficult. Not long after arriving, Billy wants to leave as well. Wyatt would like to stay. You can read it in his eyes. He feels in tune with the atmosphere at the commune and develops affection for one of the women there. This is where he might find the freedom and the America he is looking for. Once again, Billy pushes him to move on, for they must reach New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras.
The conflict should be fairly obvious. Freedom and independence take hard work, dedication and sacrifice. Too few are willing to dedicate themselves in that way.
"When you get to the right place, with the right people, quarter this. You know, this could be the right place. The time's running out."
The tab of acid handed to Wyatt by the stranger from the commune and the message that accompanies it are very telling about the nature of Wyatt's inner battle. He seems to realize he is in the right place, but that he must move on. His first loyalty is to Billy and the quest to New Orleans. It is after he drops the acid with Billy and the two prostitutes in New Orleans that he realizes they blew their opportunities. Once the quest is complete and they leave New Orleans, what is left?
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
Much is made of the stereotypical "rednecks" they encounter in their travels, even those who attack them in the middle of the night and kill George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). Whether or not these are representative slices of human beings is irrelevant. They are simply the spectre of everything Wyatt and Billy are not accepted by and do not want to be a part of.
Jack Nicholson's character, in many ways the most memorable performance from the movie, is the drunken lawyer who often spends the night in jail "drying out." He isn't part of "the system" any more than Wyatt or Billy are. If you pay close attention, his story of how status has afforded him his decadent lifestyle reflects on Wyatt and Billy... who are financing their adventures with drug money.
George joins them but never makes it to New Orleans, and along with Wyatt's visions this should be the clearest sign that they are on the wrong road. They travel it and reach their destination. Once the mission is complete, what is left? Emptiness.
"We blew it. Good night, man."
Quotes borrowed from the script
The rest written from memory...
...or what is left of it.