Five Easy Pieces (1970) tells the story of Bobby (played by Jack Nicholason), a trained concert pianist turned oil rig worker who comes from a musician family, and what happened when he decided to visit his sick father.
In my humble opinion, Five Easy Pieces is a truly fantastic film. I’m this close to calling it a masterpiece. However, I must also admit that it’s not for everyone; there isn’t really a plot and the pace is very slow. In fact, I would say that it is definitely a character study more than anything. But even so, every moment to me is a crucial detail in making the film a masterpiece that it is. For me, the reason why the film works so well is because of how much I could resonate with it. Basically, the film addresses the angst, confusion, identity crisis and feelings of hopelessness among the people of that era. All these feelings are concentrated in the story’s protagonist Bobby. Although he comes from an affluent background, it is very clear that he was never able to fit into his family, and that he never thought highly of their elitist attitudes. Rebellion is basically his way of expressing himself; be it through running away from home, working in an oil rig, sleeping around with women or mistreating his girlfriend Rayette. What I particularly admire about the film was how Bobby’s emotions were subtly conveyed through his interactions with the people around him, and how they defined him as a person. He NEVER ever expresses his feelings directly, and yet they are all so palpable and raw. With his girlfriend, we see him as a, well, truly heartless son of a bitch, and yet there are hints of his guilt towards his mistreatment of her, such as when he decided to take her along to see his family instead of abandoning her. With his sister, we get to see his more tender, albeit distant side. With Catherine (and the rest of his family basically), we get to see why he became the angst-ridden individual that he is, and why he feels so frustrated with the rest of the world. One scene that was really memorable to me was when he played the piano for Catherine, and how he humiliated her by saying that he did not feel anything while playing despite her being truly moved by his playing. Personally, I think Bobby does have a love for music and playing the piano, but what he truly despised was the social status and prestige that people attached to it. His angry outburst against the family’s snobbish friend who was mocking Rayette really spoke volumes about him to me.
I must also add that the reason why the film worked, other than it’s sophisticated characterization of Bobby, is because of Jack Nicholson’s truly incredible performance here, where he received his first Oscar nomination for lead actor. I used to think that Jack Nicholson was more of a movie star than great actor, but that was because I had a very limited knowledge of his movies (only watched Something’s Gotta Give, The Departed, As Good as It Gets). However, as I got to rediscover his earlier works in the 70s, such as Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Reds, I really understand why he is (deservedly) considered a legendary actor. To be honest, I find his performance here the best I’ve ever seen (Btw I don’t agree with all of his Oscar wins except maybe Cuckoo’s Nest). It’s an incredibly difficult and complex character that could have been played as a one note bastard. However, even in the earlier scenes he already hints that there’s an underlying sadness and pain that resulted in Bobby adopting his, well, YOLO approach to life. His final (and only) dialogue with his father in the end was one of the best acted scenes I have seen from Nicholson, and that scene alone provides the clarity needed to understand Bobby as a person. He really showed how Bobby’s father was a major influence, and probably a controlling figure, in his past, and how that affected his outlook on life. Like I said, it’s a very complicated character but Nicholson uses raw emotions to characterize Bobby, making it look effortless and realistic while doing so.
Another performance that really stood out was Karen Black’s Oscar nominated role as Rayette. The dumb girlfriend role has always been awards bait, but Black took the role one step further and turned it into heartbreaking gold. Her character is fairly simple; she dreams of breaking out of her current job as a waitress to work as a country singer, and her main goal in life is to love Bobby. It’s impossible to not feel sorry for her when the snobbish lady was mocking her, or when Bobby is treating her like dirt (“Why can’t you be good to me for a change?”).
All in all, it’s a movie that can be quite hard to watch because of its slow pace but it’s a truly fascinating character study of that era and the sentiments of its people. 4.5/5.