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Criterion Release: Five Easy Pieces

June 30, 2015

By John Corrado

Five Easy Pieces Blu-rayThis week, the 1970 classic Five Easy Pieces is being released on Blu-ray, through the Criterion Collection.  Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is a failed concert pianist, who is drifting through life working on an oil rig, and clinging to a stalled out relationship with waitress Rayette (Karen Black), when he goes to visit his estranged family of uptight musicians, and make peace with his ailing father.

Nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, as well as much deserved recognition for Carole Eastman’s brilliantly written script and acting nods for both Jack Nicholson and Karen Black, director Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces remains among the finest and most definitive character studies of the 1970s.

Jack Nicholson delivers one of his best performances, outwardly intense and volatile, but with years of emotional torture and pain hidden behind his eyes and bubbling to the surface in the moments when he finally does break down.  Yes, some of his character’s behaviour is volatile, but his anger towards the world is justifiable and even relatable, a man trying to fix his own perpetually broken self, by pushing other people away.  He is a man living multiple lives, that of a failed pianist, blue collar worker and absentee son, who is trying to leave all of them behind in search of the next chapter that will hopefully bring some sense of purpose to his life.

There are moments that cleverly satirize the social order and class systems of the time, including that famous and often quoted scene in the diner, and a sequence involving two hitchhikers that feels eerily prescient in their talk of the world’s pollution and filth.  But through the eyes of Bobby Dupea, Five Easy Pieces also captures the fierce heartbreak of adult malaise, of moving through life as a drifter, always trying to set down new roots.  The film builds towards a haunting conversation with his unresponsive father, beautifully filmed atop a lonely hill by famed cinematographer László Kovács, a moment of shattering emotion that is as piercingly honest as it is intensely sad.

Then we reach that iconic final shot, a scene so perfectly captured and filled with a deeply moving sense of loneliness, that its affects continue to linger long afterwards, a fitting conclusion to our brief glimpse into the almost literary life of Bobby Dupea.  Emblematic of the decade and place that it came to represent, and a landmark moment for the burgeoning indie film movement of the 1970s, Five Easy Pieces crafts a compelling narrative out of the unexpected twists and turns of real life, built around a character always drifting aimlessly from place to place, misguidedly searching for meaning through new beginnings.

The Blu-ray includes commentary with Bob Rafelson and his wife and interior designer Toby Rafelson, a couple of featurettes with the director, and two extended looks at their highly influential film studio BBS Productions.  The package also comes with a nicely written essay by critic Ken Jones.

Five Easy Pieces is 98 minutes and rated R.

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