About half way into Five Easy Pieces, the film really hasn’t given any clue as to what it’s going to be. It’s an incredibly complex character study, both in its approach to the narrative and in terms of Jack Nicholson’s protagonist. The beginning of the film, set in the oil fields of Southern California, ends up having to do very little with the story. It serves an easy purpose–to introduce Nicholson and establish his relationship with girlfriend Karen Black–but Five Easy Pieces hardly follows an epical course. The film could have just as easily started with Nicholson driving to Los Angeles to see sister Lois Smith.
The second half of the film, set on an island off the Washington coast, resembles the opening in terms of scene construction–Five Easy Pieces has short, concise scenes. For example, Nicholson’s devastating monologue–explaining himself to his stroke-impaired father–is not particularly long. I think there are maybe six edits in all. But it–along with the scene immediately preceding it–make Five Easy Pieces. After seventy-some minutes of hints at Nicholson, the scene finally reveals enough about the character for the film to be stoppable.
Five Easy Pieces moves on a momentum–it moves on long fades between scenes, whether it’s Nicholson hopping off a moving truck while the highway where he got on the back of the truck is still visible on the bottom half of the screen or it’s John P. Ryan’s nurse grinning wide for Smith (we don’t get to hear what Ryan says to her, because it’s just for her–the film frequently reserves things for the characters). I suppose it has three acts–I suppose I could even identify where they come in the running time–but it isn’t beholden to them. The film, from the first or second scene, moves where Nicholson takes it.
Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea is not a likable character. He’s a jerk, but a complex one. His relationship with Black is probably the film’s most complicated; it involves class differences, expectations and protectiveness. His relationship with Susan Anspach is similarly intricate. It’s the angle of entry to the character–even though the character’s emotions are never verbalized–it’s where the viewer can finally begin to understand something about Nicholson. It offers the first illumination of the character, a long time after first encountering him.
The film’s momentum and gradual pace do present one significant problem. The sequence with Helena Kallaniotes’s lengthy monologue, played for humorous effect–Nicholson’s famous chicken salad sandwich scene is in the middle–is a disaster. It’s long and goofy, ending with Kallaniotes looking the viewer straight in the eye. It doesn’t belong in this film or any other. It’s a transition between the two halves of the film. For a long time, it seems like the film can’t really recover from the spill. But then it does.
Nicholson’s great. Black’s great. Anspach is great. Smith’s great. Ralph Waite’s awesome as Nicholson’s brother, implying a character of enough depth to deserve his own examination.
Five Easy Pieces is a depressing piece of work, so depressing it’s almost hostile.
I can’t forget Rafelson. I haven’t seen Five Easy Pieces in a long time and, for whatever reason, I didn’t expect Rafelson to be a visual director. His composition is fantastic, the way he moves the camera, the way people move in his shots. But I think my favorite shot has to be the one where the viewer gets to see how much Smith misses Nicholson. It’s lovely.
Directed by Bob Rafelson; screenplay by Carole Eastman, based on a story by Rafelson and Eastman; director of photography, László Kovács; edited by Christopher Holmes and Gerald Shepard; produced by Rafelson and Richard Wechsler; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring Jack Nicholson (Robert Eroica Dupea), Karen Black (Rayette Dipesto), Billy Green Bush (Elton), Fannie Flagg (Stoney), Sally Struthers (Betty), Marlena MacGuire (Twinky), Richard Stahl (Recording Engineer), Lois Smith (Partita Dupea), Helena Kallianiotes (Palm Apodaca), Toni Basil (Terry Grouse), Lorna Thayer (Waitress), Susan Anspach (Catherine Van Oost), Ralph Waite (Carl Fidelio Dupea), William Challee (Nicholas Dupea), John P. Ryan (Spicer) and Irene Dailey (Samia Glavia).