Jack Nicholson is an incredible actor, there is no question about that. Five Easy Pieces tells the story of a classical pianist named Robert who works in a California oil field. He is informed by his sister that his father has suffered two strokes and he should go up to Washington to see him. He takes along with him his pregnant girlfriend, Rayette, but due to his embarrassment of her he leaves her at the motel and visits his father without her. During his stay he becomes attracted to his brothers fiance, Catherine, and they end up sleeping together. Shortly after this occurrence, Rayette appears at the house unannounced, creating a very awkward situation. The following day he asks Catherine to run away with him, to which she replies:
“You’re a strange person, Robert. I mean, what will you come to? If a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love of his friends, family, work, something – how can he ask for love in return? I mean, why should he ask for it?”
This conversation is a turning point for Robert, not in the conventional “I’m going to change my ways” sort of way, but a solid realization. This leads to the long awaited conversation with father, who is mute from the strokes. This scene is the high point of Nicholson‘s acting that I’ve ever seen.
“I don’t know if you’d be particularly interested in hearing anything about me. My life, I mean… Most of it doesn’t add up to much that I could relate as a way of life that you’d approve of… I’d like to be able to tell you why, but I don’t really… I mean, I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay. And I’m looking… for auspicious beginnings, I guess… I’m trying to, you know, imagine your half of this conversation… My feeling is, that if you could talk, we probably wouldn’t be talking. That’s pretty much how it got to be before… I left… Are you all right? I don’t know what to say… Tita suggested that we try to… I don’t know. I think that she… seems to feel we’ve got… some understanding to reach… She totally denies the fact that we were never that comfortable with each other to begin with… The best that I can do, is apologize. We both know that I was never really that good at it, anyway… I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
After this conversation, he leaves his father’s house with Rayette. At a gas station, he gives her his wallet to get a coffee inside. While she’s away, Robert, realizing that he would do her no good by staying, hitchhikes and joins a truck driver on his way to Alaska.
One could look at this two ways: The first being that he did the responsible thing, and really the best thing he could have done. After talking to his father, he realized that he can give no positive influence on his life with Rayette and their unborn child. After all, he left her his car, his wallet, and everything else he had with him. He left the gas station with nothing but a newly gained insight on how to live his life.
Allora, there is another way to look at this. He was completely irresponsible by abandoning his dimwitted girlfriend to raise their child alone. Just because he just realized that he can bring no happiness to either of their lives doesn’t mean he can’t start to change for them. Just picking up and leaving at the drop of a hat with no warning is the most selfish act a person can commit. And the only reason he found himself attracted to his brother’s fiance is because she represented a forbidden fruit that he had to gain control of. He knew she was never going to leave with him, but he asks her anyway, because he expects himself to live a life of misery and disappointment.
Now here is the fundamental question: Were we meant to understand this man? Were we meant to even like him at all? He refers to himself as “not a nice guy” in the very first scene. So what can we take from this? How can one learn from his mistakes if he doesn’t even have the responsibility in his character to fix his own? He was a selfish, miserable man. There is no inspiration there.
Perhaps that’s the point. I watch all of these movies with these characters that don’t fix their own problems because the producers and the writers want to gain that frustration from audiences. As I have learned several times, films are made to pull emotion from you. Of course, they must go beyond simple happy endings, that’s what pre-1960 Hollywood was all about. Film can boost you up, but it can also tear you apart. Five Easy Pieces was one large frustration, and with that, I consider it an incredible success.