McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Jake Gittes in Chinatown; Jack “Here’s Johnny!” Torrance in The Shining—these aren’t just characters from famous movies, they are permanent fixtures of American culture. Robert Dupea from Five Easy Pieces seldom registers on the shortlist of all-time great acting performances, at least in part because the protagonist, like the movie, is not easy to admire or understand. Indeed, the title is more than a little ironic, as there is nothing “easy” about it: the material, the characters, the closing scene’s infamous lack of closure, etc. The type of role tailor-made for an artist who insists upon working without a net, Bobby Dupea is at once emotional, withdrawn, silent, boisterous, persistent, and lethargic to the point of apathy.
Five Easy Pieces is, well, easy to recommend, but it’s definitely a movie that demands to be appreciated on its own cantankerous terms. The casting is perfect and the performances are stellar, yet special kudos are warranted for Karen Black, the patient yet pathetic girlfriend, and Helena Kallianiotes as Palm Apodaca, the furious yet refreshing hitchhiker. And then there is the scene, which remains one of the supremely amusing and satisfying in cinema history when Nicholson clashes with the truck-stop waitress and the system she represents.
In the disquieting climax, when Dupea unsuccessfully attempts to persuade the first woman who seems perfect for him, she poses a rhetorical question that underscores the paradox of his antipathy: “How can a man who has no love of himself ask for love in return?” His inability to answer her, and his unwillingness to change himself, suggest that his self-imposed impasse will remain unresolved.
Five Easy Pieces endures as a study of the restless soul of a gifted individual (who could have been and still could be an artist) too smart for his own good, and who has thus far squandered his youth, talent, and energy in an ennui-ridden funk where he floats from job to meaningless job, woman to faceless woman, sensation to numbing sensation.
Most of us can discern something of ourselves in the insatiable drifter, the citizen who is not content to live a banal existence even as his every action (and lack thereof) further ensnares him in a perpetuation of the life he abhors. In this regard, Five Easy Pieces is not only a commentary on the itinerant American rebel, but it also examines the suffocating dynamics of a dysfunctional family, and the dilemma of an individual blessed with extraordinary faculties he feels compelled to suppress.
Five Easy Pieces (screenplay by Carole Eastman—as Adrian Joyce—with considerable input from Rafelson and, on set, Nicholson) encapsulates a very particular American phenomenon, circa 1970, and as such, remains a touchstone of its time and a prescient depiction of the cultural rupture that would accelerate during the “me-decade”. The film is a character study, of sorts, focused on a very familiar trope: the individual caught between two worlds, and with a remarkable lack of judgment, illustrates the pressures, appeal, and conflict inherent in each.
Dupea leads a life of not-so-quiet desperation, equally out of place amongst the working class and the condescending academics. Talented enough to pursue a respectable, possibly even fulfilling career as a concert musician, Dupea is both fallible and free-thinking enough to understand (not happily) that no matter how much this existence is encouraged, if not expected –and is something his father and siblings have done — it’s simply not for him.
He’s not a malcontent so much as he can’t help comprehending that no matter what you’re paid or how much you’re admired, you’re still a trained monkey, in a monkey suit, doing something (however proficiently) that many other people have done before. Dupea is keenly aware that for all his skill, he is still playing songs someone else wrote, and even if he were sufficiently obsessed to dedicate himself to being the best interpreter of, say, Chopin, he’s still inauthentic on some level.
Of course, he’s certainly not satisfied working on the oil rig, but if a dead-end job has anything going for it, it’s something you can walk away from, without notice or regret, at any moment. Too smart and, despite the aloofness he projects, sensitive for his own good, Dupea is the American Dream in stasis, unable to find satisfaction, much less meaning, in the prescribed existence he was born into or the peripatetic drifting he capitulates to. He is Ahab, but there is no white whale to chase; he is Ishmael, compelled to return to the sea, only he does not know where he’s going and the only safe harbor is a family home where he finds no peace.
Dupea, finally, is neither an anti-hero nor an everyman. A product of the first generation ostensibly unburdened by class-consciousness or convention, he’s paralyzed by his peculiar autonomy. As the hippie hangover from the ‘60s begins in earnest, Dupea has neither tuned in nor entirely dropped out: his terminal indifference belies a genuine desire to find something that can’t be taught or bought.
Five Easy Pieces is an obvious if overdue addition to the Criterion Collection. Finally, we have the deluxe treatment, with bonus features and audio commentary (some of this material was already included in the DVD box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story from 2010). The two mini-documentaries, BBS: A Time for Change and BBStory provide wonderful and welcome insights into the DIY ethos that ended up influencing a generation of filmmakers. Nicholson, Rafelson, and many familiar faces from the early ‘70s all offer up interesting anecdotes and some genuine nostalgia for a (much) more progressive, unshackled era.
If you own a previous edition of Five Easy Pieces this is a worthwhile upgrade. If you don’t own (or have never seen) this masterpiece, it needs to be part of your collection immediately. This is, to be certain, a movie that can be returned to over time: the nuances of the story and the subtle mastery of Rafelson’s direction are to be savored and studied. This might be Nicholson’s ultimate performance, and the reverberations from his urgent yet honest portrayal still linger on the lower frequencies of our collective consciousness.