The Libertarian Kick in “Roadhouse (1989)”
There is more to the 1989 Patrick Swayze starring masterpiece, “Roadhouse” than to being a glorious action film. Beyond the Family Guy memes and spinning back kicks is a film with a philosophical heart that will remain as ever green as Swayze’s appeal as a leading man. The new owner of a rough roadhouse called ‘The Double Deuce” wants to clean it up and run an establishment that people enjoy. He seeks out the best man for the job, a cooler named Dalton (Swayze). We are introduced to calm and cool Dalton while he is dealing with hotheads in another club. A capable professional. Dalton takes the job offer, once at the Double Deuce he observes the staff and clientele before laying down his rules. Immediately sacking undesirables and reckless staff members while instilling a professional code in those who remain. The fight to clean up the Double Deuce expands into a wider battle to liberate the entire town from the clutches of the antagonist, Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara) and his army of goons.
When viewed outside of its pure adrenaltainment ‘Roadhouse’ is an example of both free market violations and solutions. A depiction of private voluntary security and protection over coming the chaos of selfish individuals and the tyranny of the powerful while never once appealing to government to fix any of these problems. The characters in ‘Roadhouse’ do not seek government intervention, in the realm of the film it can be understood that Wesley would buy them off or is a law unto himself. As many past and present villians are in the real world.
Dalton knows his worth, setting his price and conditions high. Reputation allows him such confidence and reward, though he is not a mercenary. When Wesley makes Dalton a job offer he responds with “There’s no amount of money.” Principles first, he may be highly paid but he can’t be bought. In the real world there seems to be a confusion between those who practice dignified capitalism and exist inside of a free market with their own principles to those who believe such a freedoms will inspire reckless obedience to the highest bidder. The false belief that wealth in itself would define right and wrong, the rich making the rules, as though regulations and government does not perpetuate variance of this. In a complicated perspective for some people in the films reality, Wesley may not entirely be a bad man. To those he employ, the business interests he satisfies and any who enjoy the order his control offers all have welcomed such a man and embrace him.
Outside the veneer of macho traits trapped in the beauty of 1980s aesthetics, Dalton is a ronin and philosopher. Though his actions and conduct is guided by an underlying philosophical world view, one that is not entirely attached to his martial arts or academic education. It’s who he is as a man. To do what is right regardless of the mob or risk to self is a powerful standard to uphold. It can also be a romantic delusion that many satisfy themselves with, an avatar that modern digital culture may even afford whereas in the blood and bone world where bullies are dangerous and numerous it is a harder life to lead. Dalton does so and even in fiction, we see the difficulties of such a living philosophy.
As a man of a rough profession, Dalton maintains his own medical autonomy. Carrying around his medical dossier, deciding that he does not want pain killers, “Pain don’t hurt” our swarthy hero grits as he denies a needle entry into his person. “Most of my patients would disagree with you”, Dr Elizabeth Clay (Kelly Lynch) replies. Dalton exemplifies the insert character many of us wish to be. He is an uncommon man though he exhibits common virtues many desire in themselves or at the very least those who are granted certain expectations of purpose. Dalton is the cultivated union of the physical and mental, a spirit of dignity and composure acts as the mortar between those two elements. His strength of character and righteous indignation is the arsenal that he brings to resisting a powerful bully. Dalton enshrines the active resilience that is required to preserve liberty, defy the tyranny of men like Wesley and his goons. That is the example set by Dalton.
Brad Wesley is the authority of the town that is wrapped around the Double Deuce, he has his own army of enforcers, extorts money from local businesses, regulates and controls the supply of the alcohol among other things. He is a government. Even in the most Utopian of realms of any anarchists fantasies, bad men like Wesley will exist. Whether in a Hoppean realisation where 1000s of Liechtenstein’s emerge, many such dominions will exist where bullies and cruel leaders dominate. This is Brad Wesley’s Liechtenstein and he is the wealthy monarch with willing thugs and oppressed townsfolk. It is a functioning society, flawed though flowing. The arrival of a man like Dalton upsets the harmony of oppression that saturated the Double Deuce and wider community, like an ideal his defiance and sense of justice defied the tyrant Wesley.
Brad Wesley is a predator, we see inside of his lavish home exotic animals stuffed as trophies that we are led to believe he personally killed. He gets what he wants, women, desiring Dalton’s love interest, Dr Clay, to the town itself. He is cruel though charming in his own way. Wealth and charm are powerful tools for those who rule, even if it is a small remote town. Wesley is a Machiavellian prince, his talents as a ruler had seen him succeed at carving out his own fiefdom up until the arrival of Dalton. Wesley could have run for office in another setting, been a warlord in early 20th century China or a prince in Anarchistan. Such people will always exist, it’s how we view and resist them that will diminish their ambitions and influence. Dalton is the last resort reaction to a man like Wesley and yet he is also the prevention, if we reflect inwardly and see what traits as a person we admire most, those we seek to live and abide by, rather than accept or embrace as a means to survive.
When Wesley’s charm and wealth fail, he responds with tantrums of violence. Whether a government or a prince like Wesley, violence is the insurance that the populace yields. It is the deterrent and punishment. No matter how righteous and altruistic the prose may be, defiance and independence are to be punished by those like Wesley.’s goons Dalton and the bouncers at the Double Deuce fight back, they stand up and take the violence to the oppressor. The ideals and living philosophy of Dalton manifests into a resistance. It is privately funded and voluntary, unlike Wesley who taxes and extorts the wider community to sustain his rule. It is the acceptance in a man like Wesley’s right to rule that enables his power, Dalton is the idea of liberty and righteous dignity.
Once the match of Dalton set the fuse, others who were tired of the bullying and injustice stand up. Wade Garret (Sam Elliot) as mentor and ageing peace keeper joins the fight once Dalton calls him for advice. Garret is a balancing wisdom to the fiery energy of Dalton who makes the fight personal, though justice and liberty is intimately personal. It is when Garret is killed himself becoming a martyr the war escalates, and violence ensues. “The ones who go looking for trouble are not much of a problem to someone who’s ready for them. I suspect it’s always been that way.” Dalton explains during the film, he may as well be invoking the Gadsen flag’s “Don’t Tread on Me”.
Like an old Western movie Dalton leads the people to resist the rule of Wesley, inspiring the townsfolk to stand on their own two feet. It’s a message that is universal and evergreen. The application of the narrative to our own perspectives perhaps has become tainted over time, the attitudes and approach of the gangster Wesley is admired in certain corners. Wealth and power above all else. The mercenary goons, bullies for hire are not in uniform though if they were would many of them act much different under certain circumstances?
Wesley is killed in the end, not by one but by the many shots of the business owners representing the townsfolk. His victims end his rule. In the moment before the police arrive, the weapons are collected to be disappeared. No one is a witness to the death. The simplified conclusion is akin to “I am Sparta”, a universal agreement that none and all shall be punished, but that each eventually participated in their liberation from the bully, the tyrant. Dalton in the end was merely a symbol or a catalyst that allowed them to reach this liberation. The instinct was always there.
‘Roadhouse’ as a movie can be all of those things mentioned above. Then again it could also just be a very awesome action movie. Either way we take from things what we want and need to see. At times in our own lives we don’t see the Brad Wesley’s or their goons maybe we are even working for such a man. A man like Dalton can just be an ideal, an insert fantasy or the person who was right well before it was popular. “I believe we all have a purpose on this earth. A destiny. I have a faith in that destiny. It tells me to gather unto me what is mine,” Wesley rationalises in a face off with Dalton. His sense of destiny and those who seek to rule tends to differ with those who desire freedom, to be left alone. “I want you to be nice, until it’s time to not be nice,” as Dalton explained to his bouncers, perhaps it’s time to stop being nice to bullies and tyrants, “…and take out the trash!”
Kym Robinson, May 2023