Bobby Dupea’s life pinballs from one meaningless day to the next, powered by one-night stands and pints of plastic sour mash. He carouses with rowdy shitkickers and toils in menial jobs until the boredom and wanderlust overwhelm him. Bobby is loosely tethered to reality by a curdled relationship with a hee haw diner waitress, Rayette Depesto (Karen Black). She’s all billowing hair and fake eyelashes—her brittle naiveté embodied in the syllabic Tammy Wynette ballads she coos vainly in Bobby’s ear. The story could’ve remained on this trajectory—a muted exam of two lives barreling to nowhere.
This is, however, merely a set-up, as Bobby learns from one of his blockheaded drinking buddies that Rayette is with child. Nicholson plays the reaction brilliantly—his Bobby greets impending fatherhood with the clenched terror of a man about to be guillotined. This sequence follows one of the movie’s bravura moments, in which Bobby is stuck in a traffic jam. He debarks from his car, climbs onto the back of a nearby jalopy, and whisks the blanket from a beat-up baby grand piano. He begins a furious, off-key Chopin etude, supplying the film’s central twist: Bobby is a piano prodigy. His soot-covered, blue-collar existence was a façade. He’s no ordinary screw-up.
Bobby hitches north to visit his mousy sister, Pertita. Tita is a session pianist who dotes on Bobby. She overlooks the warts and goiters on his personality and yearns for the good man hidden beneath them. During their reunion, she drops an emotional anvil on him: Their stern, aristocratic father (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Papa Hemingway) is dying from the effects of a severe stroke. Now, Bobby must trek back to the family compound–a “rest home-asylum,” in his estimation–and gain closure on the rocky relationship with his old man.
Here, the movie makes a mid-section swerve and becomes a kooky road trip. Bobby reluctantly loads up Rayette—not from passionate attachment so much as fear she will kill herself if he leaves her. (“You’ll read about it in the paper,” she warns him.) They head for the Columbia Valley, picking up two cranky lesbian hitchhikers along the way. (These chattering hippies are headed to Alaska, to “get away from all the crap.”) This travelogue sequence features the scene for which the film is now iconic, where Bobby squares off with a surly café waitress:
“I want a chicken salad sandwich, hold the chicken,” snaps Bobby.
She is incredulous. “You want me to hold the chicken?”
“I want you to hold it between your knees.”
The convoy splits up in Washington state: The gibbering lesbians continue to wherever, while Bobby deposits a reluctant Rayette in a fleabag motel. He knows her Green Acres shtick will go down awkwardly with the sweater vest mafia he will encounter. He ferries to the autumnal family compound; we meet Bobby’s older brother Carl, a master violinist. Carl’s genial, forced smile perches atop a permanent neck brace and this tandem gives him the appearance of an affable Frankenstein. Carl’s fiancée is Catherine, an earthy woman with piercing blue eyes. She and Bobby trade “meaningful looks” at the dinner table and acerbic barbs until they end up—naturally—in bed. This act leads to the film’s emotional, tightly wound conclusion, in which Bobby must strip away his armor and confront the emotional cripple within.
The resolution (which I will not reveal) is many things—at once spare and strange, satisfying yet completely unfulfilling. Its final shot is one of the most quietly brilliant in all of cinema history, punctuating this character study with an ellipsis rather than a period—the visual equivalent of a long, frustrated sigh. Because, that’s the Bobby Dupea character; he’s a Typhoid Mary, a pox on those who dare to feel anything for him. In the end, he can only do what he does best, and in the worst moment possible.
“Five Easy Pieces” is a raw rumination on the anti-hero, work that would later be refined by the likes of Coppola, Scorsese, and Polanski. The early 70s were a watershed for American film, where neo-noir fare such as The Godfather, Mean Streets and Nicholson’s own gloomy Chinatown would thrive amidst the malaise of Watergate and the continued withering of Americana. But before that came this: A milestone; and were it not for the success of Patton (possibly the finest WWII movie), Five Easy Pieces would’ve and should’ve swept the Academy Awards.
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