The film stars an on-the-cusp-of-stardom Jack Nicholson as Bobby Dupea, an unhappy oil-field worker living a meager blue-collar life in Kern County, California. Nothing about his life brings him pleasure. He keeps his vapid, wannabe country singer girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black, magnificent) around for reasons unclear. He doesn’t seem to like his friends. He hates his job. He sleeps around behind Rayette’s back, but even sex is kind of miserable – once it’s over, he has to go back to being stuck with himself.
At first we’re disposed to thinking Five Easy Pieces will likely act as a cinematic comment on the fruitlessness of a lower-middle-class existence. How opportunities are scarce and how the merging of mornings and days and nights and weeks and months is a given.
But then the movie shifts. Bobby finds out that his father has recently suffered two strokes; he seems on the brink of death, family members say. So he reluctantly returns home, and there do we find that everything we’ve come to know about our protagonist is something of a drawn-out lie: Bobby is actually the product of an upper-class family, and left behind seismic musical talent and an opportunity for a proper education apparently because he couldn’t take the pressures of bourgeoisie living any longer.
His decision to refashion himself into a blue-collar worker hasn’t exactly been satisfying, either, but at least he can take pride in the fact that he’s made a life for himself without any help from old money. To think about his past is to die.
But his suddenly having to forces Bobby come to terms with himself. For most of his adulthood, he’s been able to successful declare that he’s left behind the cloying societal pressures that’ve come with his family’s name. By having to reacquaint himself with his past, he’s made to contemplate where his life’s going: masking who he is is becoming progressively difficult, but even that’s complicated by the reality that he’s restless no matter his situation.
Such a plight is a universality for anyone in the grips of a wandering adulthood, and such has kept Five Easy Pieces' ability to stir intact. Youthful ennui and disillusionment was prevalent in the Vietnam-era America during which the film was released, but such sensations are still felt as times change and cultural outlooks shift. Is there anyone who hasn’t found themselves conflicted by ideas of pursuing their ambitions versus disappearing into a semi-anonymous existence?
In Five Easy Pieces, Bobby makes for an embodiment of that inner conflict so many of us face as we’re transitioning into a permanent sort of adulthood. He’s living it. While so many of us have certain skill sets but sometimes don’t have the means to integrate them into our careers, Bobby does, but chooses not to utilize them simply because he’s too fearful of the various setbacks that might come along with implementing them. He tries as hard as he can to sprint away from the person he used to be, but in the process does an unsatisfying future creep closer, and as such must he reckon with whom he’s going to be.
One of the things I like best about Five Easy Pieces is its refusal to provide Bobby with a tidied-up happy ending. It acknowledges that the majority of the general populace will never reach self-actualization – even if they’re living the life they thought they’d wanted in their younger years – and doesn’t try to pretend as though Bobby’s on his way to reaching it either. The take-home message is, I think, that even though the human experience is messy and frequently unbearable, we’re still capable of finding our own personal prosperities so long as we’re willing to recognize our neuroses and attempt to overcome them. By the end of Five Easy Pieces, Bobby’s closer to making that happen. But the movie isn’t conclusive. Because how many of us find contentment that lasts a lifetime?
That makes Bobby one of the most inexhaustible of cinematic anti-heroes. His imperfections make him appear three-dimensional rather than detestable; his perpetual uneasiness is justifiable and relatable rather than disappointingly feckless. Part of his appeal undoubtedly has to do with the forthright way in which Rafelson characterizes him, but most of it can be indebted to Nicholson, whose existential confusion is so tangible in his performance that we can almost see it hovering in the air. The cultural burnout that came along with the dawn of the ‘70s is epitomized by Bobby, yet even in the following decades has his unrest stayed widespread. He’s malleable, lovably scratched.
And so is the movie. It remains among the definitive products of its era (and the still-evolving New Hollywood period), and of American cinema as a whole. So often do movies flirting with alienation in ways similar to Five Easy Pieces – from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) – alienate us themselves. Yet we want to embrace Five Easy Pieces. Many of us will never know what it’s like to be a depressed housewife on the verge of destruction at the hands of her own loneliness, and many of us will never much be able to get in the headspace of Travis Bickle. But we can empathize with Bobby Dupea. We can even see ourselves in him. That hasn’t changed – and probably won’t. A
Billy "Green" Bush
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
Five Easy Pieces
o really capture the sensation of disaffection on the screen is no easy task. Tears can stream and emotionally numbed expressions can be captured, but to authentically establish feelings of blankness, contempt, and mild misanthropy cannot always be translated so directly. So perhaps that’s what makes Bob Rafelson’s second film, Five Easy Pieces (1970), such a sensation: It presents its themes of alienation and discontent with such startling clarity that we’re almost taken aback by how perfectly it mirrors the commonly felt quarter-life crises experienced by searching individuals in their 20s and in their 30s.