Five Easy Pieces (1970, Rob Rafelson)
Jack Nicholson, so far as the most recent decade of his work is concerned, has earned a dubious reputation to say the least. The sarcasm, the bullish wisecracks, that widest of wide grins, all are hallmarks of the Jack Nicholson of the late 1990s and first decade of the new millennium, so much so that he is mostly recognized for playing himself as opposed to actual three-dimensional characters, joining the same undesirable club as the once great Al Pacino. As was discovered last week in a review for Easy Rider, Nicholson's film career began many, many years ago in the late 1960s. One of his first starring roles and, arguably, one of his more complex roles, was in the film under review today, Five Easy Pieces, directed by BBS co-founder Rob Rafelson, who also made Head two years prior.
Robert 'Bobby' Dupea (Nicholson) lives in a relatively small house with his diner waitress partner Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black). He is employed at a nearby oil drilling company, where physically taxing chores are asked of its employees day in and day out. The film establishes early on that Bobby is what some would describe as a drifter, an individual possessing a variety of knowledge but having never put any of it to tremendous use, hopping from one job to another. In his thirties, he remains unmarried and has no children, his current relationship with Ray, a kind and loving if somewhat simple minded woman, not as solid as it maybe once was. Bobby definitely likes her, but refuses, in his own brash way, to give in to true love, just just he once refused to remain with his eclectic family back home and just as he refused to make a life for himself with his stunning piano playing skills. Evenings are spent with friends Elton (Billy Green) and his wife either at their place or at the bowling alley, where Ray makes a fool of herself more than anything else, much to Bobby's annoyance. When he learns of Ray's pregnancy, Bobby feels to the need to get away for a while, quitting his job and meeting up with his pianist sister (Lois Smith) who warns him about the poor health of his estranged father. Despite himself, he and Ray drive their way up to the family home to revisit some old people Bobby would rather not seen again, as well as some interesting new people, like his brother's beautiful, sophisticated, music loving fiancée, Catherine (Ausan Aanspach).
Five Easy Pieces is, more than anything else, a character study, with of course Jack Nicholson's Bobby being the centre of attention. Whatever poignant moments the film has in store for the viewer, whatever surprises or emotional tugs it may elicit, they are squarely the products the film's quiet, slowly paced drama where the people, their lives and how their interactions define one another matter most. Director Rafelson, who made quite the impression with the visually and aurally psychedelic Head, takes on an entirely different role, letting go of any desires to dazzle audience with clever cuts or flash, preferring rather to invest the film's success in the script and acting. The piece's central figure, Bobby, is a representation of alienation in many ways. Even in his mid thirties is ill defined as can be, all things taken into account. He has certain skills, certain charms, certain likes and dislikes, but puts them to genuine good use only infrequently, preferring time spent with his friend Elton drinking beer, bowling, watching television and joking at work. Any impetus that sets him in motion is often something he does not like or does not want to deal with. In that respect, Bobby is an uneasy character to follow around for 90 minutes since his attitude towards many things the majority holds dear is borderline hostile, especially when confronted by them directly, exemplified by his outburst when Elton talks with him about Ray's pregnancy. He is as far removed from the traditional American film hero as can be. In a strange way, he is the film's villain.
One recurring device the film handles with a great deal of success is the very idea of Bobby's behaviour frequently being driven by what happens to him without ever giving off the impression that the character is nothing more than a blank slate onto which the script piles on a series of convoluted events. Nay, his reactions to people and events do, in fact, help define him. The tomfoolery he engages in with Elton, his ambivalent feelings towards the hopelessly romantic Rayette, the counter-culture hitchhikers the couple picks up briefly on their way up to see Bobby's father, the vastly different personalities he is forced to reckon with once reunited with his immediate family, his complicated attraction to Catherine, the snobbish intellectuals the latter invites one evening for dinner which, after one of the guests scoffs at Ray's immaturity, actually prompts him to come to the defence of his partner even though he really wants to bang Catherine (a contradictory emotional predicament if there ever was one). All of these disparate elements help depict just how psychologically wild Bobby is. He has heart, but will not love. He has education, but likes to play dumb, He is a heartbeat away from leaving Ray, but will come to her defence is she is target of verbal abuse. There really is no simple way of describing him, thus earning Five Easy Pieces a sense of emotional ambiguity both in how the protagonist is portrayed and in how the audience might respond to him.
What can be said about Jack Nicholson's performance? Put simply, it is amazing. Those mostly familiar with the actor's more recent work should do away with any preconceived notions about the frequent obnoxious pomposity which plagues his style of acting. Here is as nuanced a performance as Nicholson has ever delivered in his entire four decade long career. It is only a shame it came so early and reproduced only so often in the years afterwards. His portrayal of Bobby is what can, ultimately, get the audience on board behind the character even though his behaviour and demeanour are less than savoury. Nicholson manages to extract all the duality he can out of this ambiguous man. Yes, some of the vintage charm that would soon earn him considerable fame is on display, but it is much more subdued here.
It is a comforting thing to re-discover the often forgotten fact that Jack Nicholson can, when in the mood, be the appropriate emotional anchor in a film. Everything in Five Easy Pieces is rightfully earned, making it, at this point in the marathon, the clear leader as the best film BBS produced.