Five Easy Pieces – 1970
Director – Bob Rafelson
Starring – Jack Nicholson and Karen Black
Jack Nicholson has made a career out of playing himself. He usually does such a good job at playing himself, that I forget he can be restrained and believable as another person. I was recently reminded of that fact by his rather mellow yet taught performance in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces. In it, Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, who after dropping off the radar of his high society family spends his time working at a crummy blue collar job, drinking with his friends, and cheating on his girlfriend Rayette, played to the hilt by Karen Black. He works incredibly hard to sabotage his life every chance he gets, ensuring that no one ever gets to disappoint him except himself.
The tone of the film (and Bobby’s life) is rather bleak, however the look of the film is very warm, and almost comfortable. As a lot of movies from the seventies do, it has the color of memories that one usually associates with old photographs. With few exceptions the set pieces seem comfortable, warm and inviting. Everyone in the scenes seemed to be quite at ease, that is except for Bobby Dupea. Dupea seemed the most at home when the situation had grown uncomfortable, when he was fighting with Rayette, when he was busy working his shitty job, and when he was alone. Whenever he was put into a comfortable situation, we could see his squirm. We would find out later that this was a trend in his life. His past consists of a series of failed relationships with his family, most notably with his father. This becomes especially relevant when he learns that his father has suffered from a stroke, and he decides to make the trip home to make peace before he dies.
While he’s home, we glean a bit more into the depths of his motivation, although we never truly get a clear picture. The fogginess of his reasoning actually serves to help the story by creating a barrier between us, the audience, and Bobby. That barrier mirrors the barrier that exists with each of the other characters. We can see the futility of his actions, just as many of the other characters in the story can. Seemingly the only ones who are unable to recognize his cyclical behavior are Rayette and Bobby himself. Rayette doesn’t see it because she truly believes that he’ll change, and he just chooses not to see it.
This behavior is cemented in place through his sudden in-ability to communicate with his father. Once this avenue is closed off, all possibility of the reconciliation that he has been putting off since he left is gone. All that remains afterwards is the limited connectivity that comes with his seduction of the women in his life. Some of these are successful (Rayette), and some and some are not (Catherine, his brother’s love interest), but the result is the same either way, he remains lonely. These fleeting relationships (usually self destructive ones) are completely, emotionally unfulfilling to Bobby. The only benefit seems to be a physical one. These moments of connection are so foreign and uncomfortable to Bobby that he reflexively, almost instinctively destroys them by driving them into the ground.
By the end, we have man with no options. Having spent all of his time burning bridges, he is now exiled with himself. Five Easy Pieces is a complex movie about an unlikable man struggling with the people who are trying to like him anyway. To define it is far from easy, yet enjoying it is far from difficult.
“I think there was something about a sandwich in it.” – Ashley