Blu-ray Review: Five Easy Pieces - The Criterion Collection

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Everyone knows the famous “Jack moment” in Five Easy Pieces. It’s the scene in which Nicholson, as pianist-turned-oil rigger Bobby Dupea, tries to order toast at a diner. His outburst is classic and it has been seen and quoted by far more people than have seen the full, Bob Rafelson-directed movie. That’s a shame actually, because it’s a truly remarkable character study. Five Easy Pieces (the title refers to piano pieces, if you didn’t know) is a work of rich detail that raises far more questions than it answers. But its ambiguity—the degree to which its character’s motivations are often difficult to read and open to interpretation—lies at the very heart of the film’s enduring appeal.

This is Jack Nicholson when he was arguably the greatest American actor in the business. Hot off his breakthrough in Easy Rider, this leading role as the disaffected Dupea is not only one of the greatest performances in his formidable filmography, it’s also among the great screen portraits of all time. Yes, that’s easy hyperbole but hardly unjustified in this case. The Criterion Collection made Five Easy Pieces available in high definition in 2010 as part of an expensive boxed set, but now it’s available as a standalone Blu-ray release. What exactly makes Bobby Dupea such an unhappy, generally ill-tempered guy? Criterion’s new edition provides the perfect reason to explore the inner life of this character.

Bobby comes from a family of elitist artistic types. As a youngster, Bobby was a concert pianist like his sister Partita (Lois Smith). She stuck with it, he did not. Their brother, Carl (Ralph Waite) is an accomplished musician as well, though he plays violin. But Bobby removed himself from their highfalutin lifestyle in the Pacific Northwest, opting for work a manual labor job in California. He’s afraid of commitment, as evidenced by his nonstop philandering despite having a longtime girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black). He also has unresolved issues with his father that run incredibly deep. When Partita informs him that their father is ill, non-responsive in fact, Bobby treks up north with Rayette in tow. But he soon discovers it is far too late for him to achieve any kind of closure with his father.

Torn between being simultaneously embarrassed by Rayette’s uncouth bumpkin persona and highly defensive in the face of his family’s judgmental attitude toward her, Bobby can’t decide whether to hide her or flaunt her. He continues his serial cheating, even though the ostensible purpose of his visit is to be with his ailing father. In fact, he can’t resist getting involved with his brother’s fiancé (Susan Anspach). The fact that she seems to represent the exact type of intellectual that Bobby seems to despise. The film allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about Bobby’s rampant contradictions. Repeat viewings are recommended in order to more fully absorb the characters.

Cinematographer László Kovács, highly respected as he was, somehow never received an Academy Award nomination. He probably should’ve for Five Easy Pieces, the evidence for which is on full display in Criterion’s transfer. This fully restored, 4K scan debuted in Criterion’s 2010 box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story. While that may strike some as somewhat of a shortcut, the truth is it doesn’t appear to have needed any further work. This looks outstanding in all its early-‘70s, rich-grain glory. The LPCM mono soundtrack is flawless but outwardly a lot less impressive than the transfer, simply because this film has very limited sound design.

A number of substantial supplemental feature are included, not the least of which being an audio commentary by director Bob Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson. The video-based extras are not brand new, but are relatively recent. “Soul Searching in Five Easy Pieces” is a ten-minute interview with Bob Rafelson. BBStory is a 45-minute documentary from 2009 about BBS Productions, the influential film production company that spawned Five Easy Pieces and other classics of the era (many of which are spotlighted in the piece). BBS: A Time for Change (2010) is a slightly more recent (and, at a half-hour, slightly shorter) piece that provides a look back on the company’s legacy. For more about Rafelson’s directorial career, check out the included 1976 piece “Bob Rafelson at the AFI.”

Criterion’s Five Easy Pieces booklet features an essay by critic Ken Jones. There is also a DVD edition available with identical features. If all you know is the “hold it between your knees” scene, you definitely need to check it out.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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