Five Easy Pieces (1970) | Movies to See Before You Die

Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Partially a road trip movie, Five Easy Pieces cemented Jack Nicholson as an actor to watch. In his early 30s by the time the film was released, doing well with audiences and critics alike, and in the wake of Nicholson’s successful supporting role in Easy Rider one year prior, Five Easy Pieces feels in a lot of ways like a last stand. Not only for its star, proving once and for all that he had something unique and compelling as an actor that could carry a feature length film, but for the character Nicholson plays.

Nicholson’s character Robert Dupea is also in his 30s. Self-exiled from his rich, douchey family (although Robert is kind of a jerkass, too), with training as a classical pianist, Robert is wandering through a blue-collar life he also can’t particularly tolerate. Nothing seems to fix him to one place for very long. Not even a sweet, if not sometimes challenging, waitress girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black in one of her best), and work that seems to give him the space he needs to do effectively whatever he likes. Dupea doesn’t want anything with even the notion of permanence. Yet he’s not happy, and we often find him making that everyone else’s problem.

The ”last stand” element of Five Easy Pieces kicks in when Dupea receives word that his father is deathly ill. The alienation Dupea already felt when the movie started only intensifies as he makes what feels like a final stab at making peace with his family and with a part of his life he eventually realizes is gone forever. It’s all one trap or another to Dupea, and the movie eventually ends after a series of humorous, dark reunions, with Dupea eventually deciding to just go back on the road again. He can’t imagine himself with his white trash waitress girlfriend. He doesn’t see a place for himself with his rich, pretentious family. Nothing to do but move aimlessly through one void or another.

Dupea is a hard guy to like, but it’s easy to understand the impulses of a man who suddenly plays piano in the middle of a freeway traffic jam or gets into a back-and-forth with a diner waitress over toast and order substitutions. It’s desperation and fear for things that you can’t even begin to put words to. Nicholson wasn’t a baby boomer at time of filming, and so his character doesn’t even feel a connection to a generation of people who were struggling to figure something out at the time of this movie’s release. To his mind, he is utterly and completely alone in the universe.

That’s not even remotely true but watching someone try to understand what we can plainly see makes for one of Jack Nicholson’s finest performances. While Five Easy Pieces is remembered now for its famous dialog (although “I want you to hold it between your knees” has faded with time) and for being another hit in the exciting, emerging New Hollywood era.

When I think of Five Easy Pieces, I remember Nicholson’s performance having so much energy and charisma that it doesn’t really matter if you like Robert, or even care about his journey from the perspective of his character. Nicholson’s range is on full display, working with an exceptional cast for a story of isolation that is impossible to ignore.

Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces gives us a complex, nuanced character who we can at least feel bad for, if nothing else. That and the natural directing style of Bob Rafelson gives Five Easy Pieces an enduring portrait of loneliness made worse by vast, unshakable confusion and frustration. If you were to make up a ranking of the best Jack Nicholson performances, Five Easy Pieces would be at least a contender for the top spot.

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