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August 31, 2012

4

Five Easy Pieces

by Franz Patrick


Five Easy Pieces (1970)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Oil rigger Robert (Jack Nicholson) lived his waitress girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black), even though he could no longer stand her. When the two weren’t in bed, they spent time hanging out with another couple, Elton (Billy Green Bush) and Stoney (Fannie Flagg), and playing bowling. When Robert received news from his sister, Tita (Lois Smith), that his father had suffered through two strokes, returning to their fancy home for a visit did not sit well with Robert. However, Tita insisted because the doctor warned that it was likely that their father would pass soon. “Five Easy Pieces,” based on the screenplay by Carole Eastman, was an elliptical character study of a man so unlikable, most of us would likely to suspect that he was one of those people who was simply emotionally void. Robert wasn’t aware of this and it caused him great discontent. In his attempt to make sense of what gnawed at his unhappiness, the picture provided us a series of portraits in which Robert would take out his frustration onto others. The easiest target was Rayette because she talked as if she were uneducated. It didn’t help that she was so needy for affection to the point where, like Robert, I began to get annoyed with her. Maybe she was supposed to come off as irksome in some way. Perhaps not. In any case, it added another layer in terms of whether Robert’s irritation whenever she was around was, in a way, justified. Since we didn’t live with her to know for sure, we were inspired to look closer at the complexities of their potentially toxic relationship. One of the most painful scenes to watch was the bowling match between the couples. While Elton and Stoney were having fun, Robert rolled his eyes and clenched his jaw each time Rayette failed to hit any of the pins. Nicholson’s performance was key because of the way he skillfully navigated his character to exhibit seething anger without relying on histrionics. After all, they were out in public. Oddly, I found it amusing to watch a man so obviously enraged despite the fact that he tried to keep a lid on it. I think I found it funny because I could relate to that on some level. Whenever I’m around with certain individuals that I can’t stand, no matter how much I try to hide how I really feel about them, the truth has a tendency to leak out. Are some people delighted, not in a malicious way, at the chink in my armor? Eventually, Robert decided to take Rayette with him on a road trip toward his home town. On the way, they picked up two hitchhikers, Palm (Helena Kallianiotes) and Terry (Toni Basil), whose goal was to settle in Alaska. The film’s sense of humor reached creative zeniths: Palm’s rant about cleanliness and Robert ordering a chicken salad sandwich without the chicken salad at a diner. The acerbic wit combined with energetic performances defined the picture’s black heart. I very much enjoyed that it felt as though there was no compromise. The film took a more dramatic turn when Robert finally saw his family. We came to understand him a bit more, like discovering his background as a promising pianist and lost potential, without the material cheating the audience of what we came to know and observe in the earlier scenes. Directed by Bob Rafelson, “Five Easy Pieces” was about, but not limited to, Robert getting some form of closure. But like a shattered vase put together by glue, the closure, not necessarily permanent, had cracks and the missing pieces were never to be found. If the vase used to hold water and flowers, you don’t put water in it like before. It’s better that it remains empty, hidden, or replaced altogether.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sep 1 2012

    This is one of those films my dad sat me down and had me watch as a young teenager and so for the longest time I only understood the witty parts, and I was surprised when I watched it as an adult to realize it was kind of a dark movie. And I still don’t think I realized what you did about Nicholson’s character, that he was fundamentally unlikeable, but that makes sense. I think I might be hung up on trying to identify with the main character of a film. I have not seen this since I was in my 20s so I need to watch it again.

    Reply
    • Sep 3 2012

      Thank you for sharing! I think that if I had seen it when I was a young teen, I wouldn’t have gotten ANY of it (I was partial to action/sci-fi) so kudos to you. Even though Nicholson’s character was not the cuddliest guy in the world, I cared about him in that I wanted him to do the right thing, to be kinder to people who obviously love him for who he is, grumpiness and all. Thinking of him just now, I almost want to revisit the movie to look for more subtleties. Nicholson’s performance, partnered with an excellent script, was undeniably rich. I would love to read your take on it!

      Reply
  2. Sep 2 2012

    Excellent review

    Reply
  3. Oct 1 2014

    Hi Franz. I just found your blog. Excellent work, man! Really good writing! Five Easy Pieces is one of my favourite films. I love Nicholson in general, but especially in this masterpiece. Great review you wrote here. If I’ve understood well, you are saying that Bob wasn’t aware of the causes of his unhappiness. Here, I have to disagree. I think his main problem was aiming for the impossible. Just my humble opinion. Check out my take on the film at:
    http://wp.me/p38pht-t7
    Cheers, Ricardo.

    Reply

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