Not a Picnic: Dennis Hopper’s Family Drama Out of the Blue


Dennis Hopper changed the game with Easy Rider (1969), blew up his career with The Last Movie (1971), and then, through a never clearly explained series of events, took over and reconfigured a Canadian tax-shelter project for which he had been hired to act, thus contriving a dialectical comeback with his brutal, accomplished Out of the Blue (1980).

A genuinely alarming miasma of misplaced sexuality and rock ’n’ roll fetishism—Dead Elvis lives! Neil Young mourns!—Out of the Blue is basically a family drama with Dennis the Menace directing himself as the world’s supreme fuckup. In this incarnation, Hopper is a truck driver who plowed his rig into a schoolbus because he was drunkenly fooling around with his prepubescent daughter, professional urchin Linda Manz. After six years in prison, this monster of irresponsibility returns to his wife (Sharon Farrell), a smack-shooting floozy, and to his extravagantly disturbed child, an aspiring punk rocker (“Disco sucks, kill all hippies”), with near-apocalyptic results.

As presaged by a grimly amusing family picnic—two large tubs of popcorn on a dirty, deserted beach outside of Vancouver—Out of the Blue treats life as spontaneous disaster. Not just the get-together but the entire movie appears to have been improvised with everyone’s lines derived from some ranting Hopper monologue. (City kid Manz’s Mean Streets cadences and Woody Woodpecker laugh perfectly complement her director’s stoned snicker.) For orchestrating lurid goonishness, Hopper can’t be beat. In a classic bit, he confounds one of the town’s bereaved fathers by emptying a bottle of Seagrams over his own head: “I’m just a motherfucking asshole, man!”

With its skid-row lyricism (Hopper piloting a bulldozer around a seagull-infested garbage dump while Young sings the title tune) and degenerate counterculture ambience, Out of the Blue caps the BBS Productions era that Easy Rider more or less initiated scarcely more than a decade before. Indeed, the movie seems a miserablist sequel to BBS’s great critical hit Five Easy Pieces with hardhat Hopper and waitress Farrell as travesties of Jack Nicholson and Karen Black, and Manz as the mutant child whom Nicholson lights off for Alaska to escape.