FIVE EASY PIECES (1970)
This is a classic example of what the 67-74 years had to offer: a film that doesn’t try to ingratiate itself about a difficult, uncompromising man, made by a director who also does not take the easy path in winning an audience’s sympathy.
Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is a blue-collar oil worker with a warm-hearted redneck girlfriend he has no respect for (Karen Black), a friend he has little in common with and a soulless job he junks in a fit of pique. In a telling scene at a traffic jam, he reveals an unexpected past as a pianist of some education, transported a little from his blues while the piano he plays literally transports him up a side-road and away from it all. Dupea is self-involved and inner-directed, always compelled to leave any situation before he can become settled. To him, staying still is death and so is commitment to any job, idea or person.
As the story develops, we realise Dupea’s family background is an upper middle-class world, with siblings who surround themselves with the elite of the arts and have no conception of the grind of the workaday world. Theirs is a mindscape of concertos not bowling. It’s a vicarious pleasure to see the excellent Karen Black puncture their pretentious bubble asking innocently for ketchup and a TV set. (Director Rafelson was initially sceptical about casting her as he felt she was too intelligent to portray such a simple soul. In the Criterion documentary Black winningly recalled assuring him ‘Once the camera is rolling, I’ll stop thinking’).
His father, rendered uncommunicative by a stroke, is the catalyst for Dupea’s visit, merely staring at him in a way that hardly denotes an improvement on their mismatched chemistry in his upbringing. Clearly for Bobby, ‘You can’t go home again’. This is his eternal problem though. No matter where he is, he longs to be somewhere else. He’s no dewey-eyed placid dreamer though. The restlessness he can’t articulate keeps exploding into sudden outward rage rather than introspective examination for life clues. The famous diner scene when he berates the waitress for her inflexibility results in his razing the table’s contents. He abuses his best friend before quitting his job, and he attacks his car’s steering wheel when his conscience about leaving his girlfriend behind temporarily binds him.
If there is a catharsis, (and Rafelson commendably insisted on Nicholson crying at some point in the remaining plot in a truthful sequence that he's never bettered as an actor), it is the hugely touching scene where Dupea talks to his impassive father about the difficulties of their relationship. The father-to-son dynamic has always been a rich seam to mine in drama and one which I always find enormously affecting, whether it be Willy and Biff unable to achieve closeness in DEATH OF A SALESMAN, or Conrad and Calvin hiding their vulnerabilities in ORDINARY PEOPLE. Here though, Bobby’s apologetic monologue reveals him but does nothing to cure him.
In the end we’re left with a relatively young man, perhaps some small consolation, who can stare at his face in the mirror but still hasn’t learned to really look unflinchingly within at his self-sabotaging motivation, to understand what drives him to always run away. Instead he flees his situation once again. It’s to Rafelson’s credit and consistent with his own artistic instinct that we are left with a locked-off camera view that poignantly leaves Black perplexed at his disappearance and us to ponder the truth that there aren’t necessarily neat easy endings for everyone in their journey.
This is a film that could never have been made until this period, because only in the years from the late 60s were people questioning the idyllic futures we were told to work toward and beginning to examine people who couldn’t be summed up in facile ways.