Bob Rafelson’s television career came to a head with 1968 Head, a wonderfully parentless concoction of off-kilter artifice and cinema verite absurdity from the halcyon days of the New Hollywood and the waning post-mortem of the psychedelic ’60s. Pitched at the intersection of the two decades, Head is a blissful concoction of hyperactive mania belying serious, doleful interrogation, a film that uses avant-garde channel-surfing as a way to embody the existential homelessness of life at the end of the 1960s. Like the apocalyptic fallout from a decade-long acid trip, its anti-continuity editing mechanics pushed the decade’s assertion of living for the moment to consternated heights where any human ability to consider the future was laughed at by the bedlam of a world where simple notions of time and place were rapidly unwinding in front of America’s eyes. Bob Rafelson’s introduction to the film world, still his secret weapon and best film, suggests the death spasm of hippie culture keel-hauled into psychotropic madness.
Rafelson’s second film, released after the fallout at the dawn of a new decade and a new era in American film and life, is firmly embedded in the ennui of post-apocalyptic society, a distinct breakage from the hyperactive Head. Splinters of activity remain, but they are pummeled into submission or otherwise rendered futile. When Jack Nicholson’s oil worker character Robert comes to the aid of his friend in a desolate oil field showdown, the animalistic brutality of the fight is set against the sight of Nicholson rendered fetal, slumping below the corrosive oil rig hammers penetrating the Earth behind him. Restless, hyperactive discontent is subsumed within the stultifying doldrums of daily life.
Nicholson’s character is a blue-collar workaday laborer by choice, having rescinded his prior life as a concert pianist under the mastery of his secluded father, whose impending death prompts Robert’s return home for the first time in three years. Nicholson, in one of his first starring roles, remains the enigma of Five Easy Pieces, but he is in heated harmony with the mysterious, disillusioned film around him. Obstinate and feral, he is a font of erupting, maddened energy flattened by the ennui of everyday life, wandering the land and uprooting himself whenever his volatile, inconstant demeanor causes trouble or fails to appropriately offer a reprieve from the noose of workaday bumbling. It’s a vicious, full-bodied performance defined by outbursts of physical gesticulations as if possessed or embodied, contrasted with the resting gait and uneasy vacancy he adopts elsewhere. Watching him, the incontrovertible effect is of teetering on the brink of unbridled male anomie only tentatively sedated by the caverns of loneliness and self-inflicted lugubriousness he hides within.
In kinship with Nicholson, the film also inverts the Head formula by more expressively suggesting life’s tenuous grasp of linear narrative through anecdotal, unfinished episodes of life clustered together into a hesitant, ramshackle film. The somewhat aimless, always drifting nature of the script that vacillates between road film, working-class realist tale, and hothouse musical art piece impresses the understanding that life is itself a false narrative hewn from disparate moments always threatened by tumult and sudden, brazen shifts in momentum. The film itself is always packing up, questioning its own initiatives, and deserting itself in hopes of finding contentedness somewhere in the world; the drifting nature of the editing and the narrative invoke the ambling spirit of people unsure of where to go next.
The miasma of post-psychedelic ennui sublimated into barreling tonal shifts is decremented slightly by a script that can’t always move beyond the victims of Robert’s anti-social climaxes and seizures. A few scenes – even the famed chicken salad conversation wonderfully delivered with gusto and malcontent overconfidence by Nicholson – crutch their empathy with wandering souls on top of bilious declamations of other characters’ idiocy or incompetence. Women, especially Karen Black’s character, sometimes bear the brunt of the film’s disregard for the niceties of social society, even as the screenplay pays dividends elsewhere when exposing the layers of volatile hopelessness lying in wait beneath Robert’s perpetual desire to pack up and leave.
Still, its perpetual sense of tentativeness creates a palpable unease throughout Five Easy Pieces as potent as anything in Head or any number of other more famous, vaunted films released at the turn of the 1970s (the film, and Nicholson’s performance for that matter, wipe the floor with the zeitgeist-defining mid-decade chamber thriller One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a fine but artistically unspectacular film). While that 1975 film boasts askew characters aplenty, the actual film is too stable and comfortable with its own social observations. Five Easy Pieces, with manic charisma and incongruous shifts in space and tone, is a much more volatile film. One is a stable work with unstable characters, while the other is an unstable world.
Elsewhere, uncomfortable resplendence abounds in the jaded, malarial cinematography that transforms picturesque Western locations into violent limbos, and even if it isn’t the most beautiful film of its time, the fittingly perturbed sound design is astonishing on its own. Robert’s first demonstration of his piano-playing finesse – when he angrily unmasks a piano on the back of a truck while restless amidst the bedlam of stifled highway coagulation – transmutes into a feral profundo of discordance.
The innocent beauty of the piano is entangled with the upturned honks and edge-of-sanity yells of traffic goers who, like all Americans in the age of modern capitalism, are always in search of a destination but blocked from movement. The scene ends with Robert a victim of his own churlish reconnaissance of new spaces: the truck that serves as his impromptu concert hall suddenly barrels off to nowhere in particular with Robert uninterested in returning back to his car. Perhaps miraculously, he ends up somewhere he’s supposed to be going, but the business of Five Easy Pieces is in redistributing our interpretation of “supposed”. It turns out that all destinations are only tenuous, and we’re always going somewhere but never really arriving.