Five Easy Pieces and the Impossibility of New Beginnings

Five Easy Pieces | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s meandering 1969 thesis on counterculture, opens with a drug deal. Our motorcycle-borne heroes, Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), plan to escape the establishment by engaging with it one last time; to infuse their dream of “retiring” in Florida with enough cash to keep their gas tanks filled indefinitely. It’s a sellout move for two career hippies, but one that underscores the film’s broader pessimism on the impossibility of escaping capitalism, a theme best articulated by Jack Nicholson’s alcoholic ACLU lawyer, George Hanson:

“I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ‘cause then they’re gonna get real busy killing and maiming to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”

The role both made Nicholson a star and anticipated the disaffected loner-types he would portray throughout the 1970s, helping to define a central angst of New Hollywood cinema in the process. Embodied most bluntly (and with the most inflated sense of self-importance) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s R.P. McMurphy, these are angry young white men, privileged yet self-destructive in their determination to live “free” in a rigid society. Conventional 9-to-5 work, to the self-appointed firebrand McMurphy or the freewheelers of Easy Rider, would scan as both an immoral exploitation of labor and an unbearable lifestyle choice (though, mostly the latter).

Enter Bobby Dupea, the apolitical drifter of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), and a less sympathetic Nicholson Loner than the world-weary Hanson. Temperamentally, he fits easily within that canon: abrasive, alcoholic, doubtful of the world but often smugly sure of himself. Even as elements of Easy Rider resurface in the film, Dupea is less a participant in any form of counterculture than someone who runs parallel to it, propelled from one place to the next by lingering dissatisfaction and an aversion to emotional labor (“I’m getting away from things that get bad if I stay.”). Perhaps above all, he suffers from that oh-so-classic fear of being defined—by his job, by his girlfriend, by his family. Dupea can’t stand any of them, and understands the ability to start over as a means of escaping the interpersonal associations that define him. Fittingly, the film’s loose narrative (a California drifter visits his ailing father) functions as a series of revelations about Bobby’s past, each of which undermines the possibility of new beginnings.

“Can you believe starting off your day like this, going to work? Unbelievable,” Dupea growls early on in the film, trapped amid gridlocked traffic. A line of cars stretches in both directions, stranding drivers along a rural California highway during the nicest time of day. The scene is absurd in its mundanity—the type of everyday struggle that has prompted many a commuter to scribble existential poems in the margins of their planner. Of course, the joke is on Bobby. He, too, is on his way to work, carpooling with his already-drunk pal Elton (Billy “Green” Bush) to waste the day away on an oil rig.

Today is different, though: Dupea decides he’s had enough, and steps right out of the car and onto the freeway, hardhat and all. He shouts at honking drivers, barks at a dog through a car window, and launches into a vaguely anti-capitalist tirade, aimed at everyone and heard by no one. “Ants!” he bellows, “Why don’t we all line up like a goddamn bunch of ants in the most beautiful part of the day!” It’s both a neurotic meltdown and a beautifully meaningless act of protest, lamenting systems much larger than a group of honking commuters. It’s self-combustion by radical means, and exactly the type of grandstanding that fueled the politics of New Hollywood filmmakers. More importantly, it’s incredibly funny, with Nicholson reveling in the same bug-eyed insanity that supplies the few laughs in Easy Rider. Just as the traffic begins to break up, Bobby jumps in the bed of a stalled pickup truck, unveils an out-of-tune piano, and starts to play, leaving Elton and his job prospects in the rearview.

The piano, used here as a class signifier, is the film’s first reveal about Dupea. Back at work on the oil rig, Elton suggests to Bobby that he settle down with his attentive but overbearing girlfriend, Rayette (a never-better Karen Black). Bobby, of course, snaps. “I’m sitting here listening to some cracker asshole who lives in a trailer park compare his life to mine.” The following scenes complicate each of those assumptions, as Elton is revealed as a convicted felon who skipped out on his bail (yet another failed new beginning). Bobby, who presents as a working class drifter, turns out to be a classically-trained pianist from a multi-generational family of musicians.

Less capable hands might have used the reveal as an opportunity for daft class commentary, but Five Easy Pieces works as well as it does because Rafelson maintains laser focus on his character study of Dupea. The film’s twists hardly announce themselves with song cues or melodrama—they just happen, trusting the audience to analyze their significance in Bobby’s life. In one scene, he’s on the oil field in his flannel; in the next, he’s inexplicably suited up in a recording studio, visiting an aloof pianist revealed as his sister (Lois Smith). Partita, Bobby’s lone remaining connection to his family and the only one who appreciates his manic energy, insists that Bobby visit their father (William Challee), who has suffered two strokes.

Even with all of this exposition, Five Easy Pieces leaves its audience to do the heavy lifting. Why would a classical pianist choose to work on an oil rig? What drama drove Bobby away from his prestigious family? Unlike R.P. McMurphy, Dupea’s muddled backstory refuses to reduce him to a symbol of rebellion or ennui. He’s no class warrior or political firebrand, nor is he a Springsteenian hero oppressed by wage labor. If anything, he’s a man-child with daddy issues, whose generalized anger occasionally manifests as anti-establishment soliloquies (as in the film’s iconic “chicken salad” scene).

Still, Five Easy Pieces has something to say about class politics and elitist gatekeeping, primarily using its two contrasting settings to do so. Shot by Lászlo Kóvács, the movie’s first half revels in images of Americana. Oil rigs, cars, wide-open desert roads—Kóvács shoots them all lovingly but matter-of-factly, using wide angles to invite the viewer in. Brightly lit, dusty and rugged, he casts small-town California as the frontier, mirroring Dupea’s illusory rootlessness at the start of the film.

In comparison, Kóvács’ jarringly darker approach to shooting the Dupea family manor—the primary setting for the film’s final act—is cold and isolating. Set on some kind of Island of Misfit Intellectuals off the coast of Washington, the house exudes pretentiousness like a pastel bowtie. Kóvács shoots the scenes as all cold interiors, a choice that reflects the bitterness of the Dupea family’s interactions with one another. So subtly affecting is the production design here, that the audience hardly needs to ask why Bobby might have left this life behind in the first place.

The film’s final reveal, fittingly, is to simply watch Bobby readapt to his old life, reflecting the extent to which he has failed to escape it. Gone are the flannels and the subtle drawl, replaced by turtlenecks and sneery, intellectual comebacks (“You pompous celibate!”). The superiority complex and trollish angst remains, but his targets have changed. Instead of mocking Rayette’s naïvite or her ambitions of starting a family, he lashes out at the passionless, high-society life of classical musicians (“What the hell do you want, anyway?…Bath oil?”). The state of play couldn’t be more different, but Bobby wages the same war against hegemonic social expectations, and the ways they warp our desires. “What do you want?”

On some level, the film’s narrative device of revealing Bobby’s personal life bit by bit serves to challenge the audience’s assumptions about him, and to interrogate the idea that our identities are inherently static, amounting to nothing more than our job title and our family background. To the extent that Five Easy Pieces is political, Rafelson both satirizes and obsesses over the ways we define one another, limiting our conception of strangers to the jobs they hold and the way they speak. At his best, Dupea rages against these very structures and assumptions, working to deprogram the biases he might have inherited from his family. Yet, every time he sheds the trappings of his identity, dissatisfaction lingers—an unwelcome reminder that, for all of his fresh starts, Bobby has never fully bothered to change himself.

“I move around a lot. Not because I’m looking for anything, really,” he says, in his final monologue to his unresponsive father. “But ‘cause I’m getting away from things that get bad if I stay. Auspicious beginnings, you know what I mean?”