Five Easy Pieces (1970) (R)

"Five Easy Pieces" feels like it should have been directed by John drop, okay, yeah I know and that seems kind of snobby; but let me explain. Cassavetes made pieces of hyper-realism about everyday men and women—except his stories were nothing average. There was always something inside them that made them cosmic or shifted in their realism, showing that extraordinary tales can be told in the setting of suburban America. As such, "Five Easy Pieces" feels like Cassavetes, because we're all waiting for that important and undefinable "great-ness" to emerge from the story...but it never does.
"Five Easy Pieces" is a film about life and the hardships of wearing emotional protection. It's the sad story of never really being able to know yourself and struggling with identity—it's about being guarded to those around you and how that can influence your life...and it's about love.
Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson, very young and very good) works on oil rigs and seems to embody the everyday working man. He is in a relationship with a woman named Rayette (Karen Black) and the two seem quite volatile together. From moment one, we are not supposed to like Bobby because he never seems to care about anyone beyond himself.
From scene to scene, Bobby will range from being manipulative to bossy to adulterous to angry and back to manipulative. We rarely see a positive side to the character...but wait, there is something coming.
A "blue-collar" worker, it would seem that Bobby is running from a past that frightens him and also has a hold on him with a death grip. It becomes unavoidable that he meet with his family and so he finds his sister who tells him that their father is sick and dying.
Hearing this news, Bobby decides that the only thing he can do is pack his bags and go to see his father, unwillingly with Rayette in tow.
For us to reach this, the turning point of the movie, where the plot truly begins, it takes quite a while. We are given many scenes that seem to build Bobby up as a womanizing scumbag with no potential and no responsibility; but that is where "Five Easy Pieces" is clever.
Music plays a large to the movie since Bobby grew up in a family of extremely talented musicians and classical pieces were always around him growing up. As such, denying his "heritage" and ceasing to play the piano altogether, we get the feeling that Bobby is guarding himself from an emotional connection that is either too hard from him to bear or too frightening for him to face.
The first time we do see him connect with music is on the back of a moving truck while in traffic. It's one of the film's odder moments as Bobby gets so enraged with the bumper-to-bumper traffic that he leaps out of his car and climbs up on the back of the truck. There he uncovers the piano and doesn't even notice as he's playing, that the car is driving away with him on the back.
We only see him play once more, a very emotional moment that Bobby immediate disowns. He likes to keep his heart well off of his sleeve, bottled up inside him, never showing any weakness. But this makes Nicholson and the character of Bobby all the more magnificent because it's only near the end of the movie that changes begin to happen and we can truly see who both of them are. As Bobby, Nicholson brings the cocky attitude to the character and also the sensitivity that he needs.
Along their trip Bobby and Rayette pick up two women who complain about "the trash" in the world and the need to "be clean". Although it's clear that we are supposed to role our eyes at these women, there is something honorable in how they carry themselves: they are fully sure of their decisions. Bobby is immediately jealous of their mind-set; but it does seem to influence him later in the film.
For a movie that is tedious at times, "Five Easy Pieces" works much better as a sum of all its part and not the individualized moments. Never does it stretch itself too thin or become something that it's not.
The story is clear from the beginning, it never wavers. In this way "Five Easy Pieces" could be seen as too simple; but that's definitely not that case.
This film is a range of emotions, a musical scale, a dusty and dry drama, and a screaming melodrama. It's all the right things and all the ones that people who hate Cassavetes would find issue with...but it's all of these and more, much more.
"Five Easy Pieces" is so powerful because Nicholson is so good and because the story is so genuine.

Score: ★★★

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