Almost everything that made the New Hollywood moment important is captured in Five Easy Pieces, which exudes rebellious attitude through everything from its esoteric themes to its intimate filmmaking style. Grounded by director/co-writer Bob Rafelson’s incisive understanding of the ennui that drove the late ’60s/early ’70s counterculture, and elevated by Jack Nicholson’s complex leading performance, the picture is a vivid snapshot of personal crisis. Seething with ambition, Nicholson attacks his first major leading role, exploding in famous moments like his confrontation with an uncooperative waitress, but he’s actually best during quiet moments, communicating the angst broiling inside his character.
At first glance, Robert Dupea (Nicholson) seems like every other blue-collar guy on the job at an oil field, because he lives with a simple-minded waitress, Rayette (Karen Black), and spends his nights bowling with pals including a redneck co-worker (Billy “Green” Bush). Yet Robert is actually a highly educated blueblood slumming among the working class as a way of hiding from his past, so when a looming tragedy draws Robert back into the fold of his uptight family, we discover the reason he feels so tortured: Robert doesn’t belong where he is, doesn’t belong where he was, and just plain doesn’t belong.
Whereas many ’60s counterculture flicks showcased characters rebelling against tradition by trying to form new lifestyles, Five Easy Pieces explores the painful predicament of someone so ill at ease in his own skin that he might end up searching forever without finding the right situation. Robert Dupea, therefore, joins Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman’s character in 1967’s The Graduate) as one of the quintessential characters of the era, in that he represents a swath of progressive-minded youths who are unable to tolerate what they perceive as the artifice of their parents’ generation but too sophisticated to cohabitate with working stiffs.
This profound theme of alienation manifests in several powerful images, like the moment when Robert steps out of his car during a traffic jam, climbs onto a moving truck to play the piano stacked among the furniture, and keeps on playing as the truck zooms down an off-ramp, leaving Robert’s car behind. Nicholson locks into this aspect of Robert’s character perfectly, sketching an individual who longs for moments of connection—through music, sex, or anything.
The picture doesn’t downplay the inherent narcissism of the character, because Robert is consistently abusive to everyone he encounters. He’s especially cruel to Rayette, a dumb sexpot forever spinning her Tammy Wynette records. Robert is ashamed that he’s dating someone beneath his intellectual station, so she becomes the psychological punching bag for his self-loathing. All of this is heady stuff, and if Five Easy Pieces never really advances from one place to the next—it’s a character study, not a narrative per se—then that’s the point.
Rafelson’s storytelling was never this focused again, screenwriter Carole Eastman (writing as Adrian Joyce) failed to recapture the quality of Five Easy Pieces in subsequent work, and Nicholson would spend the next couple of decades overacting before finding his way back to subtlety. Accordingly, Five Easy Pieces is more than just a significant cultural artifact. It’s a document of a nearly perfect collaboration between director, actor, and writer, all tackling the right subject matter at the right moment.
Five Easy Pieces: RIGHT ON