Oscar Wilde once said that people destroy the thing they most love; whether that maxim applies to Jack Nicholson's Bobby Dupee is debatable, but there's clearly some element of denial in his self-loathing, as he seeks to shirk away from responsibility of anything he might be attached to. Never at any point does he cease to remind us that he is not someone to sympathise with; his actions at numerous points during the film detract from those friends and relatives around him - yet he is compelling and moving in one of Nicholson's best roles, in perhaps his and also Bob Rafelson's finest hour and three quarters, an indictment of the attitudes and neuroses of a disaffected generation of Americans in the post-1960s.
It also has some great cinematic moments that crystallize modern life - particularly the "chicken sandwich" diner scene where Bobby irritably smooth talks the waitress into giving him the order he wants. I'm also impressed by his bowling skills - Jack Nicholson was apparently the star player in the Walt Disney Cartoon Department's bowling team!
At the beginning of the film, Bobby has some measure of disaffected contentment, working on an oilrig with his buddy Elton (Billy Green Bush). But deep down Bobby knows that this is really only a life that he lives at a casual arm's distance, after he rebelled against the life given him by his well-to-do but suffocating family. It's this clash of different worlds, between down-at-heel and affluent, that informs Five Easy Pieces. A perceptive moment in the film is when his cousin chides Bobby for playing at vaudeville musical revue: "You don't really call that music, do you?" "Yes, I do. It's music."
Other men might have taken a benevolent view of the life they have been given, but Bobby is casually resentful (and secretly snobbish) about his pregnant, simple-minded girlfriend Rayette - sympathetically played by Karen Black.
His two worlds come into conflict when he learns from his dysfunctional sister (Lois Smith) that their father has suffered a stroke and is dying. A chance for redemption or some sort of closure presents itself - but all Bobby gets out of the experience is the hots for his brother's gifted but haughty wife Catherine (Susan Anspach), who is attracted to Bobby for his talent but likewise repelled by him, which only turns Bobby further on the road to self-expurgation.
It's perhaps appropriate, given the film's emotional apathy, that Bobby should make his confession to his father as a one-way conversation, with no opportunity for this particularly stern and disciplinarian figure to make his own influence on Bobby's aimlessness. This was quite a difficult scene for Nicholson to perform (his own parentage was as an orphan), but movingly draws upon his own personal upbringing.
In confess I've often felt like Nicholson in the film's unforgettable non-finale, where he stands in front of a mirror and stares at himself forlornly, and though I wouldn't go as far at hitching a lift northwards as he does, the emotional despair is certainly just as prevalent.