Five Easy Pieces
MacMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Jake Gittes in Chinatown; Jack “Here’s Johnny!” Torrence in The Shining—these aren’t characters from famous movies, they are permanent fixtures of American culture. Robert Dupea from Five Easy Pieces seldom registers on the short list of all-time great acting performances, at least in part because the character—like the movie—is not easy to admire or understand. The type of role tailor-made for an artist who insists upon working without a net, Bobby Dupea is at once emotional, withdrawn, silent, boisterous, ambitious and lethargic to the point of apathy. Five Easy Pieces is a study of the restless soul of a gifted individual (who could have been, and still could be, an artist) who is too smart for his own good, and has thus far squandered his youth, talent and energy in an ennui-ridden funk where he drifts from job to meaningless job, woman to faceless woman, sensation to numbing sensation.
All of us can discern something of ourselves in the unsatisfied, insatiable drifter; the citizen who is not content to live in a banal, preordained existence even as his every action (and lack of action) 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, it also examines the suffocating dynamics of a dysfunctional family, and the paralyzing dilemma of an individual blessed with extraordinary faculties he feels compelled to suppress. Dupea leads a life of not-so-quiet desperation, equally out of place amongst the working class and the class-conscious, condescending academics. And then there is the scene, which is one of the most amusing—and satisfying—in cinema history, when he clashes with the truck-stop waitress and the system she represents. In the disquieting climax, when he unsuccessfully attempts to persuade the first woman who seems perfect for him, she poses a rhetorical question that underscores the tragic paradox his muted 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, creates the taciturn resolution which leaves the viewer both saddened, and exasperated.
This DVD is an essential addition for any collection, and can be returned to over time: the nuances of the story and the subtle mastery of Rafelson’s direction are to be savored. All the performances are stellar, yet special kudos are warranted for Karen Black, the patient yet pathetic girlfriend and Helena Kallianiotes, the furious yet refreshing hitchhiker. The currently available DVD offers no extra material, but if any movie warrants the critical reissue with commentary, interviews and (if available) deleted scenes, Five Easy Pieces begs for the bonus treatment. This could be Nicholson’s penultimate performance and the reverberations from this urgent yet honest portrayal still linger on the lower frequencies of our collective consciousness.