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  • Miles Stephenson

Five Easy Pieces (1970), Bob Rafelson [4.5/5]

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

Five Easy Pieces is the sophomore feature of Manhattan-born director Bob Rafelson, released in 1970, a year before he produced Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show. Many film historians point to movies like Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, and Easy Rider as watersheds in the dominance of the New Hollywood movement over the Studio Era, a time when directors, writers, and actors wrestled creative control away from the studios and when college educated audiences became increasingly interested in independent and European film.


These two conditions laid the groundwork for the creation of arguably the best generation of American filmmakers; Altman, Allen, Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola and more. I think those movies are imperative to that history, but it is Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces that captures this monumental shift for me more than any other movie.

The year is 1970. America has been "freed" from the white picket fence conformism of the 60s and thrust into the psychedelic, countercultural age of Watergate, Vietnam, and Social Liberation. It could also be characterized as a time of extreme paranoia as America reels from a decade of political assassinations, giving rise to thrillers like The Conversation and The Parallax View.


In cinema, the success of late sixties independent films, the Paramount Case, and the popularity of critics like Pauline Kael who draw attention to this movement is kicking American New Wave film into high gear. Tonally, there is an exit from what David Thomson calls the "serene fantasy" of earlier American film (as Barnaby Page points out in his review) and the rise of a new archetype, something like what D.H. Lawrence described when he said, "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted."


This archetype is Don Draper in Mad Men or Tom in The Talented Mr. Ripley. He is unsatisfied, nomadic, anti-heroic, often downright unlikable, caught between class lines, etc. In Five Easy Pieces, its given shape by the obnoxious bravado of heavy-browed Jack Nicholson as Robert Dupea, a man raised in an affluent and highly educated family of classical musicians who hits the road before working as an oil roughneck and dating a waitress in Bakersfield, California.


Robert doesn't feel at home in his family's parlor discussing media theory or Chopin but he feels equally out-of-place with the country bumpkins at the derrick or the hitchhiking hippies obsessed with the "filth" of modern consumerism. With nowhere to call home, Robert uproots constantly, often disappearing in a moment's notice onto some new town or adventure, abandoning his lover Rayette, played remorsefully by Karen Black.


In Robert, the movie captures this mid-century wanderlust, seen first in the Beats like Jack Kerouac's On The Road and later in the anti-war hippie revolution which rejected the artifice of Western civilization and looked everywhere — the Hare Krishna movement, collectivist communes, the Deadheads at Woodstock — for something else. It's a satire of the rebellious naïveté of movies like Easy Rider and a confrontation with a loss of direction in the national ethos. Pauline Kael called Robert “the familiar American man who feels he has to keep running because the only good is momentum.”


In Robert, I see the tension of the late 1960s between the meaninglessness of bourgeois conformism and meaninglessness in rebelling from it. I see a man homeless because he can't connect with his family but restless because he can't connect with the woman who's supposed to replace them. Despite his prickly exterior, he's a deeply sympathetic character, a tragic American wanderer whose story is able to touch us in a place where class belonging and the nuclear family of America has failed. 4.5/5, an achievement in capturing the zeitgeist of an era as well as Nicholson's finest performance.


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