Fair warning: full spoilers ahead
Five Easy Pieces, directed by Bob Rafelson, is essentially a 100-minute character study of a man unable to express his true character. Bobby Dupea, played incredibly by a young Jack Nicholson just off the success of Easy Rider, is a man who we first see working on an oilrig and who we later learn came from a quaint, upper class home in Washington. But Bobby doesn’t fit into either of these lives and instead spends his time trying to escape from his past and his present. He drinks before, after, and on the job. He sleeps around, even after he finds out his girlfriend Rayette is pregnant. While Bobby is an almost completely unlikable character, treating everyone around him horribly, he is an incredibly sympathetic one.
No matter where Bobby goes, it is clear he does not belong. The dull, gray skies of his current home in California are starkly contrasted with the picturesque sunsets of his family’s home, but neither seem truly natural. Bobby certainly does not feel natural in either place. At home he is suffocated by his girlfriend he seems to loathe, his friend pressuring him to be better, and a job he does not like. The Washington home of his childhood could not be any more different from the dirty, dusty California town. The loud sounds of cars and oil rigs are gone. The smog has cleared, and there are beautiful green trees and coastlines. However, this seems even worse for Bobby. There is a sense of claustrophobia, as he is surrounded by family who he believes he has disappointed. The dinner scenes are awkward and tense, and the judgment being passed in both directions is palpable. Ultimately though, it’s too quiet and boring for Bobby - we can’t blame him for leaving. The suffocation of both environments is best represented in a scene where Bobby is stuck in a traffic jam, and as car horns blare from every direction, he can no longer take it. He gets out of his car and - in a drunken tirade - yells at other drivers, jumps on cars, and gets in a barking match with a dog. In this moment, we see him releasing all the built up rage he has toward the people in his life.
One of the most striking patterns of Bobby’s behavior is his defiance – or attempt at defiance – to authorities or power figures. He tries to fight police officers who come to arrest his friend and co-worker for what seems at first like no reason at all. He picks a fight with his father’s nurse, who is much bigger and pretty easily beats him. In one of the most memorable scenes, Bobby tries everything he can to get around the rules of a diner and get a side of toast – even ordering a chicken salad sandwich without the chicken. But again, he is defeated, kicked out of the diner and never gets his toast. Defying these figures of authority seems to be the only way to express his anger toward the society that has made it impossible to fit in anywhere with seemingly pointless rules and distinctions. This context makes one of the final scenes so powerful. Bobby has a conversation with his father, trying to explain his lifestyle, his failures, his belief he has disappointed his father, and he breaks down in tears. This is the most human we see Bobby, and it is at this moment we see him able to express his true character and his frustration with his isolation in the world. But any sort of pride or reassurance that everything will be fine he is seeking from the first authority figure in his life cannot be received because his father cannot speak.
Bobby is unable to be himself no matter the setting. We learn that Bobby used to play piano and this fondness for classical music proves emblematic of his personality as a whole. In California, there is no place for him to express this interest; Rayette constantly blasts country music that he hates. During his drunken episode, he climbs on the back of a truck moving a piano and begins to play, but his beautiful piece is drowned out by the din of cars honking. Back in Washington, things are not much better. He can surround himself with the sounds of classical music from his sister and brother, but he is still not completely accepted. He is looked down on for not having the same upper class ideals as the rest of his family, and they seem incapable of understanding why Bobby would ever want to do manual labor. In an amazing scene that mirrors his freeway freakout, he reaches a tipping point and explodes at a visiting psychic, “Where the hell do you get the ass to tell anyone about class or who the hell’s got it…You’re all full of shit.”
This leads to the film's fitting ending - and the start of another story. Bobby’s only option is to move on, to get on a truck headed anywhere else but where he is now. We see earlier that he is completely satisfied just going where the world takes him. Earlier, he ends up in another town because the truck he jumped on to play piano was headed there. He spends the entire second half of the movie in Washington only because his sister told him to visit. He is always hoping that wherever the world takes him will be better than where he is now. We know he will constantly be searching for somewhere to fit in, and we know he most likely won’t find it. But certainly one is inclined to lend Bobby the benefit of the doubt in his final line, “I’m fine…I’m fine.”