Directed by Bob Rafelson
Five Easy Pieces is at the forefront of the New Hollywood, at least I think it is. Released at the beginning of the 70s, the film precedes many of the classic movies from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, Altman, Bogdanovich, Boorman, De Palma… [deep breath]… Friedkin, Lumet, Jewison, Peckinpah, Malick, Siegel and Schrader, etc.
A young Jack Nicholson is the star, fresh off one of the defining New Hollywood films, 1969’s Easy Rider. Here he plays a tough, no nonsense but disaffected character that would seem to follow him around in later films like 1973’s The Last Detail, 1974’s Chinatown and I suppose The Shining too, though there’s a lot more going on there.
Nicholson plays Robert Dupea, an oil worker in Southern California. He would seem to be firmly in the working class, hanging around at bars, bowling alleys and with just about anyone except for his overly loyal girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black). I only say overly loving because it’s painful to watch her cling to Robert when he so insists on pulling away, far enough to keep his distance but close enough she can always close the gap.
The first act takes place in this environment, where Robert lives unhappily in poverty, and soon we will learn that he is a classically trained pianist from a family of wealth, up in Washington. This makes us wonder why he would choose to live the way he does, mostly since it seems to make him so miserable.
With Robert’s father soon to die, Robert hits the road to Washington, and the middle portion of the film plays out like a version of Easy Rider. With his warm-tinted sunglasses, Nicholson even looks like Peter Fonda cruising across the American Southwest on his motorcycle.
Robert brings Rayette along but only because he can see how tormented she is. They quickly adopt two hitchhikers, one of whom will monologue on and on, her refusal to be quiet played for a series of jokes. Before long, however, we bid adieu to the passengers and spend the rest of the film in the brisk Pacific Northwest.
There isn’t much plot here, other than for a few Woody Allen-esque interpersonal dynamics. Robert falls quickly in some variation of love with Catherine (Susan Anspach), a musical protégé set to marry his brother, Carl. While this is going on there are implications of flirtation between Carl and Rayette but which we don’t see play out.
Even as Robert loathes his family, his girlfriend and just about everyone around him, he falls for Catherine and professes to her his love. In the most compelling moment of the film, she points to his depression and inability to receive or give love…
“You’re a strange person, Robert. I mean, what would it come to? If a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love of his friends, family, work, something… How can he ask for love in return? I mean, why should he ask for it?”
Robert’s affection for Catherine feels at once genuine and misplaced. It’s either the shining light in his life, the thing that will set him straight (and in a more modern “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” way would set him straight) or it’s just another act of rebelling against his family, like when he ran away to work in the oil fields.
Everything Robert chooses seems to be defined by what it stands in contrast to. Stealing his brother’s wife could be an act of aggression that has more with hurting his family than with holding onto something meaningful. Later in the story Robert will unexpectedly jump in and defend Rayette from the passive aggressive taunts of a family friend. His words are so loaded, but being in Rayette’s defense I found them quite meaningful. It’s the only time he really stood behind her, the person who always stands behind him, and yet it surely had more to do with telling off the family friend, someone symbolic of the plague of their class standing, the thing Robert originally ran away from. So when Robert declares love for something, he is really saying more about the opposite.
Poor Rayette. The film will end with Catherine turning down Robert, able to see right through him, and that leaves the young, unhappy couple headed back down the open road to Southern California.
They stop at a gas station here Robert gives Rayette his wallet, and while she’s getting coffee he hitches a ride with a trucker back up north. The final shot shows Rayette wandering in search of him as we see the truck speed away in the distance.
Five Easy Pieces seems to have a lot in common with yet another defining film of the New Hollywood era, 1967’s The Graduate. Robert and Ben Braddock are both depressed young men who return home and fall in love with a woman that promises no long-term stability.
For Ben it’s a combination of Mrs. Robinson and her daughter, Elaine. The affair with the elder woman won’t last, and while we see Ben and Elaine riding away together, the famous final shot makes it clear things won’t work out.
Ben and Robert might cross paths one day in a support group but not anytime soon. They are both affluent, young and depressed, and I don’t think that’s something you alway know how to address right away, mostly because the forces around you aren’t pressing in, demanding change as much as they are for someone whose mental state does affect their standing in life.
Robert can get away with being a surly, miserable person because he has family and money to fall back on. He may think that by heading out on his own, to the oil fields in Southern California, that he’s making an impact, setting his own path, but he’s walking in circles.
The way the film ends suggests a number of things. Perhaps he is making a second effort to be with Catherine, but I don’t see her falling for it. Maybe he’s decided to embrace his family, ready to stop shunning who he is and where he’s from. Or maybe he’s just tired of Rayette and wants to get away from her, willing to go anywhere that isn’t there.
Again, I think Robert only makes choices because of what they stand in opposition to. I believe he dumps his wallet and car on Rayette because it’s like his share of a divorce settlement. He wants to get rid of her and that’s that, so he leaves the car because it’s the only decent way he could imagine doing so. Maybe he will make his way back to his family, or maybe he will ride with trucker right on past them, up into Canada where he will start over and make the same mistakes.
The endings of The Graduate and Five Easy Pieces are not happy ones. They show a pivotal change in the story, the character making a definite choice, and yet they imply that the cycle will continue. People like Ben and Robert, raised in affluence and who only act in opposition to things but which have nothing really to act in opposition to, will just float on by, never living but never fully failing, at least as society sees it. They will remain invisible, out of touch and miserable the rest of their days.
Which, I mean that’s really sad, right? Did I get this wrong? It just seems to me like there’s no hope for these characters. They can have their flaws pointed out, but then they will still continue to act in accordance with strongly felt but barely understood impulses.
From where I stand today, Five Easy Pieces was a bit boring. I love a good slow movie, like something from Andrei Tarkovsky or that Van Sant film Gerry, but this was a different kind of boring precisely because Robert never seems interested in doing much of anything. It’s hard to track his motivations because he doesn’t really have any. I’m guessing the reason this film is so well received critically is because it struck a nerve with young audiences at this point in time, people disenchanted with the world, society, their own families and the politics of this era. Things had quieted down a little following the Kennedy assassination, followed by the MLK and RFK assassinations. Maybe the succession of those murders meant each one was met with a little less reaction than the previous, as people became desensitized to political violence, not to mention the news of the Vietnam War. Things that once might’ve sent shockwaves through our culture could only then go so far as it was followed up by another awful story. The young people living through this time were the Baby Boomers, the people who were too young to remember the second world war and all that entailed. They would have remembered the Cold War fallout to the war, the efforts by the U.S. to avoid another terrifying dictatorship (which got us involved in Vietnam) and the spread of communism.
So I think young people at this time attached themselves to characters like Ben Braddock and Robert Dupea because they reflected their own frustrations and confusion over how the world was changing. Since it’s all they had really known in their own lives, they similarly became accustomed to the state of the world and embodied it in a way older generations, who had seen the way decades bring demonstrable change, didn’t.
In other words, Five Easy Pieces is famous because it appealed to young audiences, and it’s from those audiences which came the movie critics, writers and directors of the future, the ones who had a big part in the movie industry in the following decades, even up until now. The people who champion this film were likely the right age when it was released.
Up Next: Predator (1987), Clean, Shaven (1993), Operation Finale (2018)