Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Written by: Adrien Joyce
Directed by: Bob Rafelson
There’s a moment in the middle of “Five Easy Pieces” where Jack Nicholson has had enough. He’s playing Robert Dupea, an aimless drifter bouncing around between dead-end jobs in California’s oil fields. He’s stuck in a traffic jam with his best friend Elton (Billy Green Bush), a guffawing hayseed, and a pint of Jack Daniels as his only companions. He gets out of the car to see what’s going on - and that’s when he spots it. A weathered stand-up piano in the back of a moving truck. So Robert does what any rational person would do - he uncovers it, pulls up a seat and begins playing. And he’s so caught up in the moment that he doesn’t notice that the truck begins moving. And so we watch as this frustrated would-be oilman is driven away, playing the piano and laughing maniacally.
It’s a moment of movie magic, one of those moments that makes you sit up in your theater seat (or computer chair, as has been the case since my Xbox broke down, forcing me to watch many movies on my computer). But it’s also the first moment that we begin to see that there’s more to this man than meets the eye. That we begin to realize that his unhappiness may have roots that go deeper than the fact that he’s just a miserable bastard.
Robert, or ‘Bobby’ as most people call him, has plenty to be unhappy about. Besides spending his days sweating it out in the oil fields, he’s also stuck in a volatile relationship with Rayette (Karen Black), a sweet but not-too-bright waitress who worships Tammy Wynette and doesn’t understand why Bobby is so standoffish. These two have no future together. But Rayette’s too smitten to leave and Bobby’s not decent enough to give her a chance to. For a while, it seems like “Five Easy Pieces” will be about Bobby’s struggle to find peace with the life he’s chosen.
But then Bobby gets word that his father his sick. His sister (Lois Smith) thinks it would be a good idea for Bobby to come home to the family estate in Washington to make peace with the family he left behind. And this is when we begin to figure out that Bobby is no roughneck. He comes from money and class, a family of musical prodigies. And he’s the only one who’s not in the family business, perhaps due to a lack of talent, probably due to a lack of drive and willpower.
The last half of the film is about reconciliation, both Bobby’s and the family’s. It’s about a man’s lifelong search for his place in the world and the peace that’s supposed to come with it. It’s about figuring out who you are, who you could be and who you should be. And it’s pretty much brilliant.
Most people point to “Easy Rider” when they talk about the early days of the new American cinema. But this movie, more than any other I’ve seen, is the crown jewel of what some have called the ‘American New Wave.’ It’s a character study of the highest degree, not concerned so much with plot as painting a vivid portrait of a lost soul.
And I think it’s Nicholson’s finest performance. Most people immediately tie this movie to the ‘chicken salad sandwich’ scene but, while that’s a great scene, Nicholson is capable of so much more. He shares a scene with his father near the end of the movie that is heartbreaking, both in its simplicity and its futility. It’s a scene that cuts right through to the core of Nicholson’s character and he nails it. And the way Nicholson plays the final scene, the final line, of the film makes it all come together.
I criticized Bob Rafelson’s first film, “Head,” for being too much of a drug-fueled signal flare to the counter-culture. Here, Rafelson crafts a film that, while not technically perfect, comes as close as any film can to capturing true, genuine humanity on-screen. I could go on and on about this film, about the brilliance of the performances, the unexpected humor, its ability to address issues of class and power without becoming didactic or disingenuous. The fact that it contains not one single false moment. But I’ll save the space and the time and just say this. “Five Easy Pieces” is a must-see for any film lover. And, oh, by the way, it’s also an American masterpiece.