Monday, 21 March 2011

Five Easy Pieces (1970) - Bob Rafelson

One of that crop of late sixties/early seventies films that gave Hollywood a hard slap around the face, told it to go and sit out by the pool and enjoy it's retirement because everything had changed, The Kids are in charge now. Of course like everything that is ever considered underground, the mainstream managed to absorb these upstarts and carry on as if nothing had happened. The main thing for us though is that we were bequeathed a handful of great era defining films.

This is the film that gave Jack Nicholson the chance to be the star attraction after a career playing second fiddle for so long. Nicholson grabs the chance with both hands and turns in one of his best performances. Sure he's a little OTT in places, but that's what we want from Jack isn't it? He plays Robert Dupea as complex a character as any on Nicholson's CV. He's a dropout, but not the typical Haight-Ashbury acid guru that you'd expect from this time. Dupea comes from a family not unlike that in The Royal Tenenbaums in a way, since his siblings are all musical prodigies in awe of their father. Dupea himself is a pianist, not that you'd know that from the first half of the film.

When we first meet him he's working in the oil fields, his girlfriend - Rayette (a top form Karen Black) is a waitress in a diner, he drinks beer after work, they go bowling, his best mate lives in a trailer. Quite quickly though it becomes obvious that Robert isn't cut from the same cloth as the people he surrounds himself with. The other thing that becomes clear is that he's a moody bugger, angry at something, full of suppressed emotions which sometimes boil over, in that typically electric Nicholson style that we've come to know so well. In fact Nicholson has his bag of tics all down to pat here, the sticky out tongue, the tasmanian devil style outbursts, the faraway hundred yard stare, they're all present as is the balding long hair look that he rocked throughout the seventies.

The second half of the film has Dupea returning to the homestead with Rayette in tow. She neatly balances out the 'I'm a stranger here' of Nicholson's character in the first half. There's all sorts of little sub plots that dove tail neatly together by the end of the film. You know it can never end well, since independent films from this era never did. Vietnam was eating up America's young, Nixon was helping to maintain the generation gap and even The Beatles were at each others throats. How can you have a big happy day-glo ending with all that in mind?

Like Jack this was Rafelson's chance to prove himself too. This was his second film after the 'wacky' Monkees vehicle Head. Which turned out to be a bit 'tune in, turn on, nod off', probably cool for that year, but not the sort of thing great films are made of. Rafelson manages to frame Dupea alone against troubled skies at every opportunity. In general though his directing style is to fit in around what the actors are doing. There are some memorable scenes that once seen are burnt into the brain forever. The diner scene and the piano on the truck are the two most famous ones, but there's also a wonderfully hammy moment between Dupea and his dad too. There are some great roles for the womenfolk also. I love the two hitch hikers heading to Alaska, but best of all is Lois Smith as Dupea's sister. She's reason enough to return to this film again and again for me. Just wonderful.

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