Hollywood’s early-’70s identity crisis produced a multitude of masterpieces, but few are fit to stand alongside Bob Rafelson’s autumnal 1970 tragedy ‘Five Easy Pieces’. In his most restrained and arguably finest role, Jack Nicholson plays Robert Eroica DuPea, a cultural refugee from a well-to-do musical dynasty hiding out in a California trailer park and trying unsuccessfully to drink and screw away his deep-seated sense of shame and self disgust.
It’s a film of stark, superbly judged and beautifully sustained contrasts, the soundtrack hopping confidently from Tammy Wynette to Chopin as Bobby and his waitress girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) travel from the lusty, sun-baked south to the cerebral, rainswept north to pay final respects to Bobby’s dying father. Refusing to submit either to gross sentimentality or pompous pontificating, Rafelson and co-writer Adrien Joyce play their themes like piano keys, touching lightly but effectively on ideas of masculinity and mortality, class and creativity, family and frustration.
It’s not a particularly subtle film – some of the supporting characters, notably Black’s dogged but witless Rayette, are written and played a little broadly – but it is a magnificently insightful and engaging one, flipping effortlessly from icy realism to heated melodrama while always maintaining a darkly comic, at times quietly satirical undercurrent. All of which is reflected in Nicholson’s phenomenal central performance, for Bobby is himself a kind of actor, playing at being ugly, mean and self-sufficient in a doomed effort to disguise his absolute emotional emptiness, feeling himself exposed layer by layer as the film approaches its devastating climax.