‘Five Easy Pieces’ a Showcase of Existential Angst
By Todd Hill
A plethora of motion pictures exist today to reward the casual viewer. After granting these films your undivided attention for the first 15 minutes, you can make or take a phone call, send an email, let the dog out (and back in), and then return to the movie half an hour later only to find that you haven’t missed a thing — nothing terribly vital, anyway. You can pretty much pick up where you left off.
“Five Easy Pieces” is not one of those films, particularly for first-time viewers. Step away from this movie about a quarter of the way in, come back later, and apart from the fact that a very young-looking Jack Nicholson still fills the frame, you’re likely to think you’ve stumbled into a completely different motion picture.
While the plot of “Five Easy Pieces” does whipsaw its audience from one place to another fundamentally different place in more ways than one, this 1970 Bob Rafelson picture isn’t especially focused on plot. It’s principally concerned with the character of Bobby Dupea, played by Nicholson, an angry young man who for all intents and purposes ends the movie more or less where he began it, at least emotionally. Over the course of the story he’s traveled hundreds of miles, and is about to embark on an even longer journey, but what he’s running away from is nothing so much as his own shadow.
In addition to being light on plot and featuring a lead character who doesn’t change or grow, “Five Easy Pieces” is also populated with people who are either unlikable or unable to garner enough sympathy for us to truly care about them. There’s no one to root for here. And yet, despite all these strikes against it, the film still manages to rank among the best motion pictures of its era. This speaks volumes about America circa 1970.
Few movies achieve a historical profile prominent enough to play an active role in defining the era in which they were made. A great many do come to represent their time, but as often as not, that’s a result of fortuitous timing. It’s important to remember that a screenplay may sit around for years before it’s greenlit for a movie, and it could take a few more years before that movie goes before an audience.
In the case of “Five Easy Pieces,” however, the screenplay, co-written by Rafelson and Carole Eastman, predated the movie by only a matter of months. It’s entirely appropriate, in this case, to read the movie as a commentary on the incendiary, exhausting, concluding years of the 1960’s. The best motion pictures, however, ultimately have something to say about any point in time, including the one in which we’re experiencing the film, and “Five Easy Pieces” is surely one of those.
The movie opens on the oil fields near Bakersfield, Calif., with a montage of shots showing Nicholson’s Bobby hard at work. When he’s not on the clock, Bobby pals around with Elton (Billy “Green” Bush), who looks like he was born to this lifestyle. Bobby pointedly does not, especially when we get a glimpse of his lower-middle class home life with girlfriend Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black), a waitress with a strong affinity for the country songs of Tammy Wynette, which coat the first third of the film like a thick, sweet syrup.
Standing out among these rich and evocative establishment scenes is one of a traffic jam during which an anxious, frustrated Bobby hops out of the car he’s sharing with Elton, angrily barks back at an even angrier dog, and then hops up on the back of a flatbed truck to play an out-of-tune upright piano — with consummate skill. Lost in his obvious musicianship, Bobby doesn’t even notice as the truck pulls off the highway onto an exit ramp. Neither we nor Bobby know where the truck is going, while Bobby clearly doesn’t care. But suddenly, we have more questions than answers about who this intriguing man really is.
The middle of the movie turns into a road trip. After a failed attempt to leave without Rayette, Bobby — with his girl — heads north up the West Coast, picking up along the way two women hitchhikers who we would nonchalantly identify as lesbians today, although their appearance in the film must have seemed considerably edgier in 1970.
This portion of the picture also features the famed chicken salad sandwich scene, in which Bobby struggles to order toast from a diner waitress who refuses to deviate from the menu (what kind of diner doesn’t offer toast?). The scene has stood ever since as one of the highlights of Nicholson’s long film career, and on its own still resonates, although it gives a false impression of the tone of “Five Easy Pieces” in its entirety. There’s a message in the scene of the inevitability of conformity, perhaps, but generally speaking, Rafelson’s film is not so heavy-handed with its metaphors.
Bobby is bound for his family’s spacious home on an island in Washington State’s Puget Sound to visit his father, who has recently suffered a pair of strokes. This is where the movie finally gets down to the business of trying to explain Bobby. It attempts to show why a person of privilege, groomed like the rest of his family to make a comfortable living as a classically trained musician, has turned his back on everything that’s been provided him, only to come up empty.
It eventually becomes clear that we won’t get an answer to this question until Bobby figures it out for himself, which evidently transpires — if it does at all — sometime after the movie’s wrenching final scene. What we get instead is a painful portrait of disaffection as gloomy as the weather of the Pacific Northwest, beginning with Bobby’s arrival at the Dupea manse, all depicted from his point of view as he peers into each room, his presence unannounced and unnoticed.
Bobby arrives alone, having left Rayette, of whom he’s clearly ashamed, in a motel room back on the mainland. To her credit, she later follows him to the house, and the tensions that heretofore have been internalized in Bobby’s body language and demeanor burst out into the open. Bobby may be embarrassed by Rayette, but he defends her against the suffocatingly elitist attitudes of his family and their friends. The class chasm here may be driven more by education and sophistication than money, but it’s just as unbridgeable.
I realize that I haven’t described “Five Easy Pieces” in anything remotely resembling an enticing manner, but it’s not the soul-crushing downer that I’ve made it out to be — well, except for that final scene. The film has a genuine sense of humor, evident at appropriate times (I’m thinking of one of the hitchhiker’s soliloquies about “filth” and “crap”). By far the best thing the movie has going for it, however, is its cast.
Nicholson had been acting in movies for more than a decade when “Five Easy Pieces” hit theaters, but hadn’t made much of a dent until a supporting role in the previous year’s “Easy Rider” earned him some polite applause. Bobby Dupea, however, was his first opportunity to truly own a film, and he makes the most of it. His charisma is palpable in every scene. It finally got his career off and running.
Equally memorable here, however, is just about everyone else. It could be reductive to refer to Karen Black’s character as pathetic, although one can’t help but feel sorry for her, latching onto a man who would like nothing more than to have nothing to do with her. Black doesn’t play her as anything like a doormat, but there’s certainly a child-like quality to the characterization that’s indelible.
On paper, Bobby’s family, practicing their scales in their cozy island domicile, reads like a nest of eccentrics. They come across that way on screen as well, but not in the over-the-top manner of, say, they likely would in a Wes Anderson film. As Bobby’s sister Partita, Lois Smith gives us our best idea of the smothering nature of the family Bobby has escaped, but is more than just nervous and flighty, which is driven home when we see her sleeping with Spicer, her father’s creepy male nurse.
Ralph Waite, who would go on to a career-defining turn as the family patriarch on TV’s “The Waltons,” has nervous and flighty down as another member of the Dupea clan, visibly striking in a big, white neck brace. Inexplicably, he has a girlfriend, played by Susan Anspach, who seems like the last person to be attracted to such a twit, although that at least makes the one-night stand she has with Nicholson’s character all the more believable. Unlike Rayette, she immediately sees the red flags sprouting out from Bobby in every direction and bolts quickly. In real life, Anspach gave birth to a child in the year “Five Easy Pieces” came out that she claimed was fathered by Nicholson.
Early in the picture, Bobby learns from his oil-patch buddy that Rayette is pregnant, although the topic is never broached by the couple. Perhaps that helps to explain why Rayette follows Bobby; it certainly goes a long way toward explaining the movie’s final scene, one of the best in 1970’s American cinema. Having left the island, Bobby and Rayette are back on the road, and stop to get gas. Rayette wants to go inside to buy something so Bobby hands her his wallet, then walks around to the men’s room. Rather than returning to the car, however, he hitches a ride on a logging truck bound for Alaska, and we watch as the truck pulls out of the gas station and lumbers down the road, while Rayette walks around looking for her boyfriend. The only sound is tires whistling on the wet highway.
One interpretation is that the scene represents nothing more than what is literally shown. Nothing beyond surface considerations such as cars and clothes stamps “Five Easy Pieces” as a picture of 1970. The Vietnam War is never mentioned, we don’t see any hippies. But coming as it did at the end of a decade defined in part by the act of thumbing our noses at authority and doing our own thing, the film’s exposition of a young man who did that very thing and is nothing so much as a lost soul may be interpreted as passing judgment on that popular mindset.
At least that’s my take on the movie. Exceptional art opens itself to a multiplicity of interpretations, and “Five Easy Pieces” certainly qualifies.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.