Five Easy Pieces: a sad commentary on the rootless and nihilist condition of American society

Bob Rafelson, “Five Easy Pieces” (1970)

One of the saddest films I have seen, “Five Easy Pieces” was conceived as a character study vehicle by the director for Jack Nicholson when the latter’s appearance in “Easy Rider” a year earlier made Nicholson a star. Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, a classically trained pianist who has turned his back on a privileged upbringing and easy wealth to live a rootless existence, working on oil rigs and living with his trailer-trash girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). The first half of the film basically sets up Bobby in his current environment, demonstrating the kind of character he has, how he relates to others: though all this slow build-up, we see he is a rebel caught between a world he rejected and a world that holds promise, opportunity and, above all, an authentic way of living and being – if he will allow himself to release all his anger, self-indulgence and self-loathing and acknowledge that he is irresponsible and immature.

After a long exposition, the film picks up speed when Bobby visits his sister Tita (Lois Smith) who informs him that their father is seriously ill after two strokes. Bobby decides to visit his pop, taking Rayette with him. They cross the country in their car, picking up two lesbian hitch-hikers along the way. The foursome have some interesting adventures including one in which they are all ejected from a diner when the waitress refuses to accommodate Bobby’s lunch request. Eventually after dropping off the hitch-hikers, Bobby and Rayette reach their destination; Bobby drops Rayette at a motel and continues to the family estate.

Once there, Bobby meets his brother Carl (Ralph Waite) and Carl’s fiancée Catherine (Susan Anspach) with whom he becomes smitten. The feeling is mutual and before you know it they’re both making out. Then Rayette unexpectedly turns up which causes some awkward situations for the Dupea family and Catherine, especially one in which a visiting family friend pokes fun at Rayette’s social background and naivete. Bobby angrily defends her, runs off and discovers Tita and their dad’s male carer in some sexual hanky-panky. Bobby picks a fight with the nurse but is thrashed.

Catherine rejects Bobby even though they are both a match for each other intellectually and takes off with Carl (who of course is no match for Catherine). Bobby tries to reconcile with his dad before leaving the family estate, perhaps forever, with Rayette. Seemingly back together, they stop off at a petrol station where Rayette gets coffee and Bobby makes a decision that might affect the rest of his life …

The plot may be slow and simple and, apart from Bobby, the characters might be a bit one-dimensional. The real worth of the film lies in Bobby’s character: confused about what he wants and needs in life, Bobby drifts from one job to another, one woman to another, and finds he can never fit comfortably in one social extreme or the other. Ultimately he is condemned by his lack of self-understanding and his self-disgust to drift forever. The one woman with whom he could make a life and achieve authenticity in living rejects him, preferring an empty life with his brother. The one person who really loves and cares for Bobby, and who accepts him unconditionally, but comes with a clingy, dependent personality, Rayette, is unable to fulfill his needs.

Everyone seems to live a hollow and false existence, and American society itself also seems adrift between a surface of propriety hiding emptiness and a life that is more authentic but which terrifies the authorities. The scenes with the hitch-hikers and the sniffy waitress in the diner are significant in developing the film’s themes: the hitch-hikers reject capitalist society with its greedy materialism but don’t really know what they want; the waitress isn’t interested in what her customers want but insists they order according to the menu because that’s how her manager designed it.

The title of the film refers to the five classical music pieces that appear at different points in the film. The music is cleverly juxtaposed with snippets of US country singer Tammy Wynette’s songs and the soundtrack cleverly illustrates the huge rift between the culture that the Dupeas aspire to and the real working-class culture that surrounds them and which Bobby yearns to reach out to but can’t quite embrace.

The real dilemma for Bobby though is one that faces all of us: how to live authentically in a society governed by a rapacious political and economic ideology that extracts natural resources from the land and turns them all into “crap” as described by one of the hitch-hikers, and in the process divides people into social classes and expects them to stay there. Those who rebel as Bobby does and try to find a more genuine way of living can end up finding no place at all. “Five Easy Pieces” is a very existentialist film in which the protagonist is forced to confront the meaninglessness of his life and must decide whether he will continue as before or embrace the responsibilities and hardships that go with living an authentic life.

I doubt that such a film like “Five Easy Pieces” can be made today; the film is part of a unique period in the history of Hollywood in which film-makers questioned the assumptions and stereotypes of American capitalist society of the 1970s and found its values hypocritical. This was the period when a new generation of actors, typified by Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert de Niro and Al Pacino, hit their creative peak as performers and made their finest films; it was also the period of directors like Martin Scorsese who also made their best films. Hollywood may not ever see their like again as, like Bobby, the industry had to make hard choices between one set of values and another – and subsequently made a disastrous choice.

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