Where does Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) belong? Five Easy Pieces (1970) has no idea, and doesn’t attempt to answer the question. Bobby is the type of character whose stories aren’t told by movies. He has no clear ambition, an endless internal confusion, and little to show for his existence. His character fails to evolve or undergo any substantial arc. Everything that happens to Bobby happens before the film starts, and we are left watching the consequences. His story is slight on information and heavy on reaction, culminating in an artfully-crafted tragicomedy that examines an entire generation. The film stands as one of cinematic history’s most important character studies. Bobby reflects the aimless and restless middle-class spirit of the post-counterculture era, helping to define the New Hollywood movement through the eyes of a disillusioned misfit.
Bobby is introduced as an oil man working a rig. He hangs out at the bowling alley, he jaunts around in his underwear with miscellaneous women, he gets drunk, and he gambles. Coupled with the southern landscape of his environment, the ubiquitous country music that surrounds his life and regularly spouts from the mouth of his airhead girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) defines the classic image of a blue-collar American man. Bobby doesn’t seem like a person with a lot of depth or secrets until he is stuck in a traffic jam with co-worker buddy Elton (Billy Bush). Bobby exits the truck and climbs on cars for a better vantage, mindlessly ignorant of other people’s property. Noticing an upright piano on the back of a flatbed, he uncovers the instrument, sits down, and remarkably starts pounding out Chopin’s "Fantasy in F Minor." Directed and edited beautifully, the scene’s unexpected nature is amplified by the orchestral car horns serving as Bobby’s instrumental accompaniment as he plays, completely absorbed in the emotion of his impromptu concert. He doesn’t even notice the truck he’s on exits the highway and veers in a different direction.
Not seeing the slightest glimmer of musical aptitude in Bobby before this point reveals his sudden musicality as a revelation, and raises instant questions in the mind of the viewer. What other secrets does he have? Is there more to this guy than the insubordinate smartmouth we’ve seen? How does someone with this talent end up an angsty, self-hating man working an oil rig?
Five Easy Pieces moves between moments without deliberate attention to segue. Bobby is impulsive and someone who relishes taking the easy way out, and the film’s composition reflects this nature. He quits his job at the oil rig midway through the picture after Elton tells him Rayette is pregnant. Bobby’s reaction reveals his questionable qualities: Elton suggests Bobby may enjoy a life of domesticity, and Bobby calls him a “cracker asshole who lives in a trailer park.” Until this point in the film, the two men appear of the same ilk, no better or worse off than one another. Bobby’s condescension towards Elton seems out of place; the pot calling the kettle black. We soon learn Bobby’s irreverence toward Elton stems from his upbringing, is reflective of his self-loathing nature, and is indicative of the confused manner in which he views his own place in society.
Minutes later, Bobby pokes his head into a studio where a classical pianist is recording new music. Her name is Partita (Lois Smith), and she is Bobby’s sister. Why does he go there at that particular moment? The film never answers, but the second half of the film relocates Bobby to his childhood home on an island off the coast of Washington state, redirecting the film in a way nobody would have predicted from the opening scenes of oil fields, bowling, and drunken poker. Their father had a series of strokes and is near death, unable to speak, and Bobby heads home for a visit.
The family home is removed from convention. His trip there (which includes the film’s ever-famous chicken salad scene) bridges Bobby’s life between the two parts of his world: the place he ran to, and the place he ran from. In neither location does he feel comfortable -- there is nary a scene in the entire film where Bobby appears to actually fit in. It soon becomes clear that no matter where Bobby goes, he is dissatisfied with the results of his experience.
Bobby’s family is a legacy of music. His sister is a classical pianist, his brother Carl (Ralph Waite) a violinist with a damaging neck injury. Carl’s fiancée Catherine (Susan Anspach), also a musician, fits into the family fold nicely. Photos of everyone with their instruments, the father included, don the walls of the home. Missing is Bobby, clearly the black sheep of the family, the one who abandoned his musical talent after deciding the sterile and haughty life of a classical musician brought with it an elitism and snobbery he was happy to avoid. Though it also becomes clear the existence he opted for brought him no greater reward; he disapproves of the pretense of his upbringing, but is equally unsatisfied with plebeian alternatives.
Of course, as a character, he identifies with both worlds. Seeing the fruit of his existence makes it clear why he deemed Elton trailer trash -- he awakened his gifted upper class background in that moment. That background keeps him from being able to fully embrace the banality of his life. It is the same reason he is so bored by the simplicity of Rayette. She’s pretty, she’s fun, but she’s dumb. He is repelled by the things he identifies with, either by choice or by nature.
Music stands as an emblem of Bobby’s inner conflict. Rayette sings (quite beautiful) country tunes in the car on the way to Washington, and Bobby’s grungy life is surrounded by the genre, yet he tells her to shut up. At the family home, he and Catherine bicker about the validity of Las Vegas musical revue musicianship. Finally, he plays for her Chopin’s "Prelude in E Minor," the “easiest piece he could think of.” He says he played it better when he was eight and that he feels nothing playing it now, and neither should she. “I faked a little Chopin, you faked a big response.” It’s nonsense, of course, as we’ve already witnessed Bobby get lost in the world of music on the back of a truck, but disingenuousness is his trademark.
Bobby seems to sort of know what he wants out of life but is incapable of making it happen. Instead, he just bounces from place to place hoping that the answers will be there, and they never are. He is talented and smart but the weight of his own heaviness grounds him in the inability to fully decide what he wants. He even tries to explain himself to his mute father and can’t get out the words; crying instead. Somehow we know his father would disapprove regardless of the explanation.
There is nothing to imply that Bobby was ever mistreated or unloved. His character is profiled without completely developed context. We don’t know what his childhood was like, we can only assume based on the house and the family. We don’t know what happened to his mother. We don’t know what went on in the first 30-some years of his life. We just have a man’s rattled misanthropy as it reflects the world at large. When he checks into the cab of a logging truck en route to Canada in the film’s final scene, ditching Rayette at a gas station without a word, it comes as a moment of sheer brutality that we somehow should have seen coming. The behavior is Bobby on the nose, yet the devastating idea of leaving everything behind -- including a pregnant girlfriend -- is haunting in its lack of resolve.
The Dissolve writes, "Five Easy Pieces is the very definition of a character study, and one of the best American cinema has produced... He finds everything beneath him, and he treats everybody with mild condescension because those notes are a cinch to hit, and he knows they make him look cooler. Five Easy Pieces doesn’t have any big speeches to make that point, because it doesn’t have to. That’s what the rest of the movie is for."
One of the film’s taglines reads that Bobby “hitched a ride to nowhere,” and the film’s title refers to a book of easy piano selections new students use to learn the instrument, symbolic of Bobby’s preference for the easy way out of his discordant problems. Like many elements of the film, it doesn't explain these things overtly. It leaves everything up to the characters.
Five Easy Pieces’ minimalist plot captured and depicted the youth alienation prevalent in the unstable middle class life of the early ‘70s. It was a cultural service -- Bobby Dupea, caught between two social classes and equally immobilized by both, helped define a generation battling society, jobs, love, family, and fears. Though all of its social issues may not resonate as easily today, it couldn’t have been more perfect at the time of its release.