Released in 1970, Five Easy Pieces is a film of it’s time, with a protagonist as difficult to like as he is fascinating to watch. Of course, from the poster you can tell this protagonist is played by Jack Nicholson, and this is one of his earliest films, following a breakout role in the previous year’s Easy Rider.
In Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, an oil rig gruff somewhere in the southwest. He lives with his waitress girlfriend Rayette and slums around with his buddy Elton. He’s a simple man, wants to be left alone for the most part and acts dismissively towards everyone, including Elton and Rayette. It’s obvious he doesn’t love her, but it’s something the matter with him, not her. Bobby is a loner out on his own, trying to make a way for himself. He’s an isolationist and vehemently rejects his world and it’s expectations.
We learn that this oil rig man is actually a classically trained pianist with a wealthy background, but that he walked away from it all. After his buddy Elton has a run in with the law and his sister tells him of their ailing father, Bobby returns home to the northwest, dragging Rayette along out of some form of pity or self-loathing.
It’s odd that Bobby stays with Rayette at all and is one of the more difficult aspects of the film, he’s just kind of a dick to her. You wonder if he is trying to punish or hurt her in a way, like his way to control her is to leave her in this lowly suspended state. I feel for Rayette the most in this film (played wonderfully by Karen Black, who received an Oscar nomination btw).
Bobby just never lets anyone get close, he never lets down his tough guy exterior, almost as if underneath he more fragile than he dares admit to even himself. But at the same time, it’s impossible to totally sympathize with him because he is so cold. It’s a really provocative duality that at once attracts and repeals the audience in a way few films can, and roof that Jack Nicholson was always a genius for being able to pull it off so well.
While on the road, they take on a couple of riders who broke down. In these scenes we glimpse Bobby’s personal disdain for society, for rules and restrictions. His riders talk of the terribleness of mankind and the problems of the world, and Bobby stays quiet. It doesn’t bother him. But when he can’t get some simple toast at the diner, watch out. He goes on a tear not unlike something Holden Caulfield would spout.
After seeing this film a second time, I was struck by just how funny this movie really is. Nicholson rants some great speeches and slings some classic insults. Most of the supporting characters are a little odd, especially at the family home, making for lighter moments around the dramatic stuff. It’s another balance the film keeps, not letting either get too much a hold of you, never letting you completely relax either. Five Easy Pieces commands attention at all times, even the seemingly mundane moments.
At the family home, Bobby ditches Rayette at a motel and goes up to the estate alone. There his sister Partita and brother Carl live with their ailing and mute father, his male nurse Spicer (dude is classic), and Carl’s piano student Catherine. Bobby instantly pursues Catherine while constantly belittling Carl, who is obviously unaffected by his brother’ bullying, and also vaguely avoiding the real reason he is there.
It’s all so childish to a point, like Bobby has stepped into his old life. There is even a scene where he plays Catherine a piece on the piano by Chopin, one she finds moving but he does not. He only played it because it was the first piece he ever learned and the easiest to play (cough*title reference*cough). Scenes like this throughout the film just paint such a vivid picture of this man, showing us rather than having to explain. It’s superbly done cinema.
Only at the end of his stay, Bobby finally has that heart to heart with the old man. He tries to apologize for his actions without really acknowledging their affects. It’s a strange monologue, one where where we can literally see Bobby’s exterior crumbling ever so briefly before he regains his composure. It’s heartbreaking, not only because of it’s brutal honesty and emotion, but because it’s not really the resolution that either man needs.
At the end, little has changed. Bobby is still alone in his own head. The world and everyone is still full of Shit. He leaves the family and eventually Rayette in one last heart-wrenching scene that has to be seen to be felt. I won’t go into it now, but it cements his character in your mind.
Now, back in 1970, when this film came out, there was a lot of anger and a lot of resentment in the air. The 60’s were over, things were getting depressing and people felt like this, all of this around us, was crap. Five Easy Pieces is the expression of all that contempt. It’s about rejecting your status, your daily grind, everything around you that you know is crap.
At the end of it all, Bobby will still be moving along, not because he’s searching for something, but because he’s “getting away from things that get bad if I stay.” Sometimes though, it feels like all he’s really rejecting is responsibility. And that is the conflict that the film brilliantly presents us.
If you’ve never seen this film, watch it. It’s slow at times, it talks a lot, but it’s genuine and real. You may not like Bobby Dupea when it’s all over, but you’ll never forget him.