Saturday 5 May 2018

Movie Review: Five Easy Pieces (1970)

A character study drama, Five Easy Pieces looks at the lost promise of youth through the lens of a man who has simply stopped caring.

Bobby (Jack Nicholson) is a disenchanted blue collar labourer working on oil derricks in the California desert. Once a talented pianist, Bobby comes from an artistic family but has frittered away his life. He generally cares about nothing, repeatedly cheats on his girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), and fights with his only friend Elton (Billy "Green" Bush). Despite being repeatedly victimized by Bobby's attitude and infidelity, Rayette always allows herself to be charmed back into his arms.

Bobby's sister Partita (Lois Smith) informs him that their father is very sick. He heads out on a road trip with Rayette to the family home in rural Washington State, where he finds his father in a catatonic state but is nevertheless immediately entranced by his brother's fiancee Catherine (Susan Anspach).

Directed by Bob Rafelson, Five Easy Pieces is a bleak look at manhood in crisis. Powered by a potent Jack Nicholson performance thriving in Bobby's emotional scorched earth policy, the film is an unblinking look at a life draining away. While it's almost impossible not to stand and stare as Bobby disappears into his own vacuum, Five Easy Pieces also suffers from the pungent unlikability of a leading character who does everything wrong on the way to doing nothing at all.

The pattern is set early, with Bobby dismissive of Rayette, unable to commit to anything, and generally settling for stubbornly satisfying his base instincts to the detriment of his long term happiness. Rafelson's narrative conundrum is where to take Bobby when he starts at the bottom, and the answer runs around in the repetitive circles of mistreating Rayette and winning her back.

A couple of key scenes break the monotony. Stuck in a highway traffic jam, Bobby climbs into the back of a small truck hauling furniture and starts playing the piano, offering a glimpse of how his gumption could have been channeled in the right directions. And later on the road trip, he tangles with a diner waitress in a battle of wits resulting in a Pyrrhic victory. Even when ordering breakfast, Bobby demands to be right at the expense of being successful.

László Kovács adds some excellent cinematography, capturing industrial vistas against spectacular skies, while Rafelson sprinkles some touches of humour, including a filth-obsessed random traveler who joins part of the road trip.

But the plot deficiencies are difficult to completely cover up. The reasons behind the disintegration of Bobby's life are only tangentially hinted at, his crippled relationship with his father a possible crucial fork in the road of his past life. But now Bobby is empty on the inside and only capable of boorish behaviour, a man with nowhere to go except deeper into the desolation of his own making.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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