“Five Easy Pieces” is one of the finest slices of Americana known to the movies. It plays more like passionate vignettes of a frustrated, disgruntled and misguided working class society.
It’s most tortured figure is Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson in an Oscar nominated performance, but that goes with the territory I suppose), a former concert pianist who has abandoned his wealthy life to work on an oil rig. When we meet him, the camera has dirt lifted out of our eyes. The film’s abrupt editing and sound mixing emphasize that Robert really doesn’t know how he even got here or why he’s living this life. Maybe both he and his friend Elton (Billy Green Bush) think they deserve something better, but then even Elton isn’t good enough for the one he’s got, unexpectedly arrested by federal agents after robbing a bank over a year ago.
Robert’s dialogue and demeanor has all the markings of a temperamental American, petulant at his girlfriend for bowling gutters all day and giddy at being known as a “guy on TV.” Jack brings such untapped ferocity to his character, and rightly so. We find him so immersed in playing piano to blare out the horrible sounds of traffic, he doesn’t even realize he’s headed in the wrong direction, both literally and figuratively. He cheats on his girlfriend with two women, is quick to be indignant and finds both wonderful, stoic honesty and a harsh lack of feeling in conversations with his father and family. All of these elements somehow seem quintessentially American.
Maybe it feels that way because he’s surrounded by so many “filthy” pieces of “crap” who are “all full of shit.” The ones who don’t know better reveal their deep pains, or in Robert’s floozy friend played by Sally Struthers, her naked truth. “When I was four, just four years old, I went to my mother and I said, “What’s this hole in my chin?” – I saw this dimple in my chin in the mirror, and didn’t know what it was. And my mother said – get what my mother says – she says, “When you’re born, you go on a assembly line past God, and if He likes you, He says, “You cute little thing!” and you get dimples there. And if He doesn’t like you, He goes, “Go away.” So about six months later, my mother found me saying my prayers, and I was going, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” My mother says, “What are you covering up your chin for?” And I said, “Because if I cover up the hole, maybe He’ll listen to me.”
The others who think they know better, like a hitchhiker with extreme pessimism and hatred for the filth of mankind (Helena Kallianiotes), doesn’t even realize how hateful she is. Her biting attacks are so cold and disjointed, Director Bob Rafaelson jumps between them with quick wipes and country music smashed in the middle.
Doing this helps keeps “Five Easy Pieces” tumultuous and anecdotal. It allows for a famous moment like the “Chicken Salad Sandwich” scene to stand alone as funny and poignant, and yet it also finds room for a lovely vignette of family and emotion conveyed through a slowly beautiful 360 degree tracking shot purveying photos along the walls.
“Five Easy Pieces” is a film that, by its end, requires us to take a big long look in the mirror and consider seeking a fresh start. Maybe somewhere where its cleaner.