An Appreciation – Five Easy Pieces
Part of what makes Five Easy Pieces a breath of fresh air is in the way it doesn’t abide to any traditional storytelling blueprint. The sequence of events actively avoid the three act structure. Because the narrative is not beholden to established and familiar plot beats, it is free to move any direction and take any tangents it so wishes. First time viewers would have no way of predicting where things go based on the opening passages. Rafelson and his team are constantly shifting gears, going to different places as a means of learning more about Bobby. A key revelation happens when he visits his sister, Partita (Lois Smith) in a music studio and discovers that his father (William Challee) has become ill after a stroke. This information becomes the basis of the second half, as Bobby and Rayette travel to the Washington coast to meet with his family. But what exactly is Bobby going there for? He is estranged from his family and especially from his father, so what does he intend to accomplish? Is he looking for forgiveness? Redemption? Or is he simply trying to close a chapter of his life before he can move on to the next journey?
Bobby’s visit to his family is an extended string of odd instances and awkward interactions. We intuit right away how he doesn’t gel with them. He has a cold relationship with his brother Carl (Ralph Waite) to the point that he even sleeps with Carl’s girlfriend, Catherine (Susan Anspach). Bobby makes no effort to be friendly with his father’s male nurse (John P. Ryan). Even with his father sitting mute in a wheelchair, Bobby is unable to come up with the slightest connection. The only substantial relationship Bobby has is with Partita, but even that is temporary. Is Bobby just a victim of his own weaknesses? Does he self-sabotage any possibility of happiness? Catherine questions why he would walk away from his musical gifts. During a slow camera pan, we see pictures hanging on the wall, revealing a past life and what could have been if Bobby had made different choices. But if Bobby is the cause of his own misery, then why would he come to Rayette’s defense when a group of pretentious snobs visit and speak condescendingly towards her? Bobby treated Rayette poorly as well, but he can’t stand seeing other people do the same?
Maybe that’s the whole point. Life is not a set of easy solutions and quick fixes but a parade of inconsistencies and unanswered questions. Sometimes we make bad decisions, sometimes we aren’t sure what the right thing is. Life is about stops and starts, making mistakes and learning from them. We move along at a steady pace, doing what we can and hoping for the best. Perhaps that’s what Bobby tries to do in the scene where he talks with his father. It is the emotional heart of the film, where Bobby finally opens himself up and espouses all of his frustration, confusion, and regrets. The fact that his father does not respond makes the moment even more powerful. It is the best scene of the film, and one of the best singular performances of Jack Nicholson’s long, storied career. It is here where we understand that Bobby is neither cruel nor entirely good, but is a living, breathing human who understands his weaknesses but admits he isn’t sure how to overcome them.
What are we to make of the final scene, in which Bobby leaves Rayette at a gas station and hitches a ride with a truck driver? There is an intentionally vague tone here. Given everything that has happened prior, this is a perfect ending. Bobby’s fate is left up in the air – we aren’t sure if he will find a happiness or if he will continue hopping from one place to another. Maybe his destiny is to continue searching for a place that makes sense to him, even if he isn’t sure such a place exists. The strength of the ending is that it allows us to interpret it individually. We are given the chance to put our own experiences, hopes, dreams, and fears into this moment. For a split second we are placed in Bobby’s shoes and are presented the choice between clinging to what we know or venturing out into the unknown. Is Bobby running away from his past, or is he running towards his future? That’s left for us to decide.
Five Easy Pieces brims with an independent spirit, made by artists whose vision can be felt in every frame. It’s a film born out of its own time, but whose emotions and themes are universal. Where so many other productions churn out simple morality tales stuffed with recycled, stock characters, here is something that wanted to go beyond that – to reach for honesty and truth. It argues that the real world is inhabited by people who don’t always do the right thing – who can provide joy and sadness in equal measure. It is that insight that makes the film special. It understands the very things that make us human.