Five Easy Pieces is painful in the most empathetic way. Bob Rafelson’s Best Picture nominee is morose, a portrait of self-hatred, of loneliness and vulnerability. There’s a deliberate barren quality to it, a sense of hollowness.
My initial thoughts of Five Easy Pieces mistook sombreness for dreariness. It’s not a film where a great deal happens, instead it opts to slowly but surely chip away at the granite veneer of its central character. It’s a series of small revelations, quietly coming upon us, whose total much exceeds the some of their individual parts.
It’s a wonderfully honed character study, which lives and dies by the interest of its protagonist, Robert Eroica Dupea (played by Jack Nicholson). Nicholson had been four times the Oscar nominated bridesmaid before he was the big winner for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and if he had been awards worthy just once on his journey, it was for his work here.
Robert is a character of contradictions. Angry, yet humorous. Distant, yet sensitive. Volatile yet weary. It’s his anger which characterises him most heavily. He’s explosive, you can’t help but feel for those around him, forever doomed to walk on egg shells. Robert Eroica Dupea offers us one of the great mercurial identities on film, and for a man of so many duplicities to be rendered so effortlessly is staggering.
What’s most amazing about the character is that he’s really a jerk, he’s abrasive and mean, but you can’t help but be roped into his story. It works because we can see him in a way not that he can’t see himself, but in a way that he’s not prepared to. There’s an anguish burrowed deep in his gut, an anguish which Nicholson ingeniously urges to his calloused surface with subtlety and naturalism, like mercury in a thermometer
Robert is an oil rigger, spending the bulk of his days dirtied on drab, grassless fields, not unlike that howling Texan dust-bowl that passes for a town in The Last Picture Show, offering a physical incarnation to his emotional desolateness.
His explosiveness is most vehement when he’s dealing with women. There’s his girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), whose playful sexual advances he swats like flies. Not even the self-hating Robert sees her fit for his respect. There’s a women he meets at a bowling alley and has sex with, animalistically, crashing from room to room in what feels like a series of rage induced spasms rather than anything erotic. In one of the film’s more comical, and famous, scenes even a waitress who, as per the rules, can’t accommodate his side order of toast, feels his intellectual wrath. However it’s his loving sister (Lois Smith) that brings out the first rays of something else in Robert, reminding us that he too has a history that brought him to this point. She tells him that their father is dying and successfully urges Robert to visit him.
We first realise that there might be something more than conceited anger to Bobby in a fantastically creative traffic jam sequence. Trapped in a stagnant car on his way to work one morning, Robert jumps out from behind the steering wheel and hops onto the back of a moving truck where a piano is tied down, and he plays with abandon and frustration as the truck veers down some unknown highway.
Robert belongs to an affluent family of musical prodgies who we meet at his, now catatonic, father’s house. We already know his sister Partita, but there’s also his brother Carl (Ralph Waite) and his girlfriend Catherine (Susan Anspach). Robert is different from them not through a discrepancy in talent, but in his lack of application of it. We get the feeling Robert never fulfilled expectation. He was the other child, an underachiever, not worthy of his father’s time and now unworthy of his own.
Of all the film’s most revelatory moments the most poignant has to be when Catherine asks Robert to play something for her. He plays Chopin, as the camera pans around the room in which he must have spent much of his youth, scanning portraits on the wall of ancestors and his siblings and himself, sketching his journey through life, a life that came and went without any validation in the space of a few bars. This is one of the pieces referenced in the title, but for Robert it was easier when he was eight years old. These days he plays without feeling, and he’s been slipping further and further from gratification since those first performances. In moments like this we feel that there is something great and dying, desperately trying to escape from within Robert, but it’s been so forcibly choked down after so long it’s doomed to finally rest unseen.
Bob Rafelson’s direction is sobering. He gives his landscapes, from oil fields to lounge rooms, such an air of uninhabitability, such a sense of dislocation and loneliness. It’s hauntingly understated. Robert’s final moment with his father is one so simple and pegged back, it allows us to see Robert with a glaring transparency, his vulnerability for the first time truly worn for us to see. It is as wrenching and insightful as any scene could hope to be. But the film’s also funny when it desires. There’s a pair of hitchhikers Robert picks up on his way to his father’s who are obsessed with filth. Each of the ramblings that ensue from Robert’s back seat are fantastically edited, cutting just a split second too soon each time, giving the exchanges a heightened insufferability, as though they couldn’t shut up too fast. But the comedy as much as it draws laughter, even more so underscores it’s sombreness through juxtaposition.
Early on in the film Robert’s friend and co-worker Elton (Billy “Green” Bush) is arrested for a crime he might have committed a year prior.
“Isn’t that something?” Elton says as he’s taken away. It is and it isn’t. It’s wrong footing how sudden and random it is, but as it is for Robert when he plays Chopin, it’s those moments from as far back as youth which have no right to trouble us, that trap and haunt us the most. It’s a notion which Nicholson and Rafelson resolve without any real obviousness; they’re powerful in their rendering of such a human mind, and courageous in their refusal to offer any conventional respite in doing so.