Starring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach, Lois Smith, Ralph Waite, Billy Green Bush, Fannie Flagg, William Challee, John Ryan, Marlena MacGuire, Sally Struthers
Directed by Bob Rafelson
Sometimes you just can’t connect with a movie no matter how good it is, and this was my experience with Five Easy Pieces. I honestly don’t know what I think of the film. I didn’t like it much, that’s for sure, but to say it’s bad just because of that feels wrong. It’s not you Five Easy Pieces, it’s me. Due to this experience, my initial thought was to forgo my usual star rating and replace it with question-filled stars. But after writing the rough draft of this post I was able to wrangle my thoughts enough to rate it, so without further ado let’s get wrangling those thoughts and my initial indifference with Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces.
The film opens by introducing us to Bobby (Jack Nicholson), an oil worker in the central valley of California. He’s a blue-collar guy who enjoys more than his share of beer and women. He’s involved with Rayette (Karen Black), a diner waitress with dreams of becoming a country singer, but he doesn’t seem all that into her. Eventually we learn that there is more to Bobby than this working-class lifestyle suggests. He is actually a classically trained pianist from a wealthy, eccentric family, but he decided to give it all up and live a simpler, more down-to-earth life.
Bobby’s general dissatisfaction with life drives the film, and it also kind of makes it one that isn’t all that enjoyable to watch. He’s not a character to like or gain insight from, he’s more prone to pushing away those around him who show love for him. Like the women in the film, I tried to get inside his head and understand his feelings, but the more I tried, the more he retreated. It was a very frustrating experience. But specifically because of this, Bobby is a character that feels more real than the traditional film character. He’s not cast from whatever mold you have in mind that film characters should come from. He’s unique, and Nicholson’s performance perfectly captures the character’s essence. What drives Bobby to do what he does may be a point of frustration for the audience, but he’s frustrating in a very realistic way. The character’s “arc” is equally frustrating, as he begins the film as a drifter running from his past and ends the film by doubling down on his wandering, aimless life by actively running from his past, his present and his future all at once. It’s quite the understated, existential ending, to say the least.
What I was most interested in was what Bobby actually wanted out of life, and this is something that the film doesn’t directly address. There are his needs of the moment, such as his desire for his brother’s fiancé, but it was clear that this attraction would not fulfill the yearning void in Bobby’s soul. It seems that the answer to what drove Bobby away from his family and what he’s looking for out of life are connected at a deep level, suggested by a late scene in which Bobby tries to explain himself to his ill father who never says a word in the entire film. Could it be something as simple as the need to please his father that drives him? I guess when you think about it something like this isn’t as simple as it sounds, and the way our parents treat us and care for us (or don’t care for us) is what wires our brains for later in life. There’s a reason why Five Easy Pieces remains a talked-about classic film; it’s loaded with subtext, ambiguity and it demands good discussion and thought to fully get a handle on. Its themes reach deep into the core of what it means to be a human being with issues, which is say “to be a human being.”
I watched the film alone and couldn’t talk about it with anyone afterwards, but writing these unfiltered thoughts has been helpful in understanding the film and what Rafelson was going for with it. While I think it’s a somewhat dated film that must have played a lot stronger in 1970, the general theme of the disillusioned youth is a universal one that remains relevant and powerful today. I also must admit to being bored throughout almost the entire film, and I think being more knowledgeable of exactly what I was about to tangle with would’ve served me well. Five Easy Pieces was not the film I wanted or had hoped it to be, but it is definitely a film worthy of discussion, dissection and respect.
If anyone’s interested, Roger Ebert wrote a couple of pieces on the film that I found to be quite insightful, really driving down to the core of the film and extracting meaning. The first is his review from 1970, and the second is a 2003 entry into his Great Movies series. Enjoy!
Five Easy Pieces is part of my 2014 Blind Spot Series where I see one movie a month that I feel I should’ve seen a long time ago. It’s all the brainchild of Ryan McNeil over at The Matinee, one of the web’s premiere film blogs. Head over there tomorrow where he’ll have a post of his own for the series, as well as links to all the other people taking part in the series. And feel free to participate on your own blog as well!