Five Easy Pieces: Criterion Collection Blu-Ray Review
Updated: Jan 4, 2021
In the overstuffed halls of hackneyed movie cliches, ‘they don’t make ‘em like that anymore’ stands proudly at the top of an undistinguished pile. But seriously, when it comes to Bob Rafelson’s 1970 masterpiece Five Easy Pieces, they really don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Magnificently restored for this new Criterion Collection blu-ray release—for the discerning film fan and/or collector of physical media—this is as essential as they come.
Eschewing the traditional styles of studio filmmaking, Rafelson created an almost plotless film, focused instead on the complex internal life of Jack Nicholson’s self-loathing Bobby Dupea. Brilliantly written, exquisitely performed, and strikingly directed, Five Easy Pieces is a searing, existential character study, and a landmark moment in America’s new cinema movement.
First introduced to us as a blue-collar oil rig worker, Bobby is a good ole boy, who enjoys drinking, bowling, and gambling. He lives with his waitress girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black) who dreams of being a country singer. But Bobby isn’t from this world. He’s a classical musician from a wealthy Washington family, and has spent years running from his privileged past, driven by his disgust for the class he was born into.
When he learns of his father’s illness, he travels home, bringing Rayette with him. Bobby is a cruel and complicated man, trapped in a cycle of trying and failing to run from himself. He despises the pretentious upper-classes, yet has a barely concealed contempt for the working class stiffs and uneducated folk he tries to blend in with.
Jack Nicholson in the 1970s is—I think we can all agree—peak Jack Nicholson. A character actor with movie star charisma, at the absolute top of his game, and Five Easy Pieces may well be his finest work. The subtle changes in his voice and mannerisms depending on who is talking to are incredible. From the more drawling and rounded speech as he interacts with the boys at the rig, to the more clipped and refined tone when he is with his family.
But even with Nicholson firing on all cylinders, the film is very nearly stolen from underneath him by the women in the film. Karen Black, Lois Smith, Susan Anspach, and Helena Kallianiotes are all remarkable, bringing an incredible realness, gutsiness, and melancholy to their performances.
Due to its free-flowing style and minimalist plot, Five Easy Pieces is endlessly surprising. A richly textured portrait of people who feel flawed, and fragile, and deeply real, it still resonates today, fifty-years after it was originally released. A timeless masterpiece, with an ending that remains absolutely shattering.
The disc comes loaded with extras, including an audio commentary from director Bob Rafelson and production designer Toby Rafelson. Soul Searching in Fives Easy Pieces is a 2009 interview with Rafelson and Nicholson, discussing the writing and development of the film, and features some great recollections and insights into some of the film’s most famous scenes.
BBS: A Time for Change is a 30-minute documentary from 2010, featuring critic David Thomson and historian Douglas Brinkley discussing BBS Productions, the production company founded by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Stephen Blauner. BBS was one of the leading figures in the new indie cinema movement in the 1970s.
BBStory is another documentary about BBS and the groundbreaking cinema they produced. This 2009 programme features interviews and contributions from Bob Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson, and Karen Black among others. The doc focuses on the various films they produced, including Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, and The King of Marvin Gardens.