Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is a gifted pianist, but that’s not his greatest talent. Robert’s true gift is running away. A bright future in piano performance, a well-to-do family of intellectuals, a needy and pregnant girlfriend — he can walk away from any situation at a moment’s notice. He reinvents himself constantly. Robert’s not quite as talented, though, at acting out whatever new part he’s written. The bitterness, the rage and the discontentment that seep out tend to give him away.
Other people are part of this man’s world, of course, but Bob Rafelson’s comprehensive character study “Five Easy Pieces” revolves around the volatile curiosity that is Robert Dupea. Much like the actor who plays him, Robert cannot be pinned down. He is aimless and distant and restless, a man perpetually ill at ease in his own skin. He’s also disgruntled, though the source of his discontentment is murky. What little information the script provides doesn’t make it any easier to diagnosis Robert’s problem, either. He works in a California oil field, spending his off hours with girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), a waitress who idolizes Tammy Wynette and Robert in equal measure. Rayette’s hero worship suffocates him, and he treats her with contempt and cheats on her. He also kills time drinking with buddy Elton (Billy Bush). None of this makes him especially happy. Neither do Rayette’s unexpected pregnancy and Elton’s arrest for a convenience store robbery. So when Robert finds out accidentally that his father (William Challee) is ill, he sees his chance to escape … except that a moment of exasperation means Rayette is along for the ride.
An eventual clash of these two worlds — Robert’s listless life with Rayette and his family’s more urbane, pretentious existence — is inevitable. Where Rafelson takes the road less traveled is the result of this collision. He doesn’t present either life as a particularly charmed choice. Robert’s family, a cluster of aggressively cultured types, delights in insufferable dinner guests who name-drop equally insufferable philosophers and belittle the working classes, taking special aim at Rayette. Rayette, on the other hand, is naïve in a way that’s not the least bit charming: She shows up at the Dupea’s Puget Sound mansion when it’s crystal clear Robert doesn’t want her there; she asks for ketchup during a fancy dinner party; she chalks Robert’s hateful tirades and violent behavior up to “moodiness.” Before these two worlds can collide, though, Rafelson foreshadows the tension with the strained, beautifully shot road trip. In this portion of “Five Easy Pieces,” Nicholson outdoes himself. He simmers quietly but dangerously, weathering Rayette’s non-stop singing, her constant need for attention and approval. Robert swallows his annoyance with two bizarre hitchhikers, but some of it spills over in Nicholson’s now-famous “chicken salad sandwich” scene. His contempt for the rude waitress is positively scalding; his sarcasm, withering and razor-sharp. It’s not hard to see why this scene is often touted as the one that made his name — and his career.
“Five Easy Pieces,” though mostly (and undeniably) a vehicle for Nicholson’s talent, also excels visually. Cinematographer László Kovács takes great pains to film the parts of California travel guide photographers shy away from: the barren, featureless landscapes and oil fields; Rayette’s disheveled, nothing-special trailer home; the winding, dusty roads crammed with traffic so thick the exhaust fumes are nearly visible. It’s hardly surprising that Robert, suffocated by the cars, abandons his car in the mess, climbs aboard a truck hauling a piano and starts playing. Music offers a temporary escape, and his childhood home appears, at first, to be a respite as well: lush, verdant, overlooking the magestic Puget Sound. But for Robert, the Dupea home is merely another cage with nicer window dressing. He’s no happier in California than he is in Washington, with Rayette or with Catherine (Susan Anspach), his brother’s fiancée. Ultimately it’s Catherine who points out this terminal unhappiness to Robert, but he’d rather flee the scene than accept the truth. Thus, “Five Easy Pieces” cannot provide a conclusion with any sort of closure because Robert fears closure. He’s on the run from himself, and that’s a race he seems unwilling to give up.