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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Five Easy Pieces: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Five Easy Pieces: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection // R // June 30, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted June 29, 2015 | E-mail the Author

Though its most well-known scene takes place in a diner, Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970) is more than just a snappy comeback and a violent table-clearing swipe. It's also loaded with emotional weight and razor-sharp dialogue, not to mention an emotional climax that'll leave first-time viewers stunned in their seats. Our central character is Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson), a restless and miserable man who grew up in a stuffy, intellectual family and played classical piano. There's little trace of that young man left: he's currently toiling away in California with his friend Elton (Billy "Green" Bush) in an oil field and not-so-happily dating bubbly waitress Rayette (Karen Black), who prefers Tammy Wynette to Chopin. Routinely seeing women on the side and playing the piano "once in a while", Robert is obviously uncomfortable in his own skin and isn't afraid to routinely shed it whenever convenient.

Almost immediately, everything changes again: Elton runs into trouble with the law, his father suffers a stroke up in Washington, and Robert quits his job. So he drives north, reluctantly towing Rayette along...and after we meet his family, it's obvious why he's so miserable. Rayette stays at a nearby motel, because Robert's embarrassed to keep her around. Not surprisingly, he's a different man around the family: still confrontational and without a polished sense of responsibility, Robert lets his guard down a little and obviously wants to make things right with his father. Also visiting from out of town are his sister Partita (Lois Smith), brother Carl (Ralph Waite), and Carl's lovely young fiancee Catherine (Susan Anspach), who Robert immediately feels attracted to. But she's just another substitution for Robert's almost impossible dream of happiness...and unlike the pregnant Rayette (who's threatened suicide if he leaves her), Catherine smells trouble a mile off. They're alone together, but not for long: after Robert finally speaks with his unresponsive father, he's on the road again and dreading a return to his former life.

Working with the late Carole Eastman (The Shooting, The Fortune) under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce, Rafelson wrote the initial script before handing it over, only making a few changes to Eastman's near-finished product...not the least of which was an ending that had our central character die in a car accident on the return trip. Luckily, Rafelson pushed for the film's devastating open road of an ending: in his world, Robert is doomed to wander and perpetually reinvent himself (it's not surprising, since Rafelson spent his earlier years holding down all manner of jobs including rodeo rider, jazz musician, Army veteran, disc jockey, and Japanese film translator). As a whole, Five Easy Pieces is a devastating slice of drama and one of the decade's early standouts; if offers no easy truths, just a little comfort for those who, deep down, might have something in common with a man who doesn't know what makes him happy.

Five Easy Pieces was an early product of BBS Productions, shortly after Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider took on a third partner, Stephen Blauner. A Blu-ray boxed set of America Lost and Found: The BBS Story was released in 2010, serving up a handful of the studio's best films including Head, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Drive, He Said, The Last Picture Show, A Safe Place, and The King of Marvin Gardens. It's taken five years for Five Easy Pieces to get its own stand-alone release...and though this disc has a 2015 copyright, this is essentially the same edition in keepcase packaging. Featuring a terrific A/V presentation highlighting Laszlo Kovacs' cinematography and a fine collection of retrospective and vintage bonus features, it's only worth ignoring if you already own the BBS boxed set.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Five Easy Pieces was made on a shoestring budget, but this 1080p transfer (created for the excellent America Lost and Found Blu-ray boxed set) makes it look like a million bucks. Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratios, Five Easy Pieces is highlighted by excellent image detail, occasional depth, strong black levels, and faithful color reproduction. Supervised by director of photography Laszlo Kovacs, this 2010 transfer also displays a pleasing amount of film grain that fits perfectly in line with director-driven films of the era. Digital imperfections---including excessive DNR, edge enhancement, and compression artifacts---are nowhere to be found. In fact, the only problems I could spot were sporadic moments of slight softness, but these are likely source material issues and nothing more.

DISCLAIMER: The images featured on this page are strictly decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.

There's little to say about the PCM 1.0 audio aside from that it's adequate, especially considering the source material. Portions of the dialogue feel cramped, especially during the opening scenes, which gives several exchanges a muffled and flat overtone. Luckily, it gets better: the conversations and sound effects eventually sound a bit more crisp and clear without fighting for attention, while a handful of moments even manage to showcase modest amounts of depth. But despite a few limitations, this is obviously the best that Five Easy Pieces has ever sounded on home video and die-hard fans will be pleased. Optional English subtitles are included during the main feature only.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

As usual, Criterion's menu interface is easy to navigate with separate options for the commentary, chapter listing, and other supplements. This one-disc set is locked for Region A players; it's packaged in their typical "stocky" case with attractive two-sided cover artwork. The accompanying fold-out Insert features a terrific essay by critic Kent Jones, technical specs, and cast and crew information, all of which have been reprinted from the previous Blu-ray.

Bonus Features

Everything from the boxed set disc and nothing more. These supplements include a feature-length Audio Commentary with director Bob Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson, a short interview piece "Soul Searching in Five Easy Pieces", the 2009 historical documentary "BBStory", a second BBS Documentary featuring critic David Thomson and historian Douglas Brinkley, vintage Audio Interview Segments with Bob Rafelson, and a handful of Teasers and Trailers for the main feature. All told, we hear from Rafelson multiple times, as well as Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, and several others. Normally I'd be disappointed that nothing new was added for this stand-alone release, but this is a terrific mixture of supplements that supports the main feature perfectly.

Final Thoughts

Fascinating and almost impossible to look away from, Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces is a genuine landmark of its era and features a doomed central character that you can't help but pity. Jack Nicholson's Robert Dupea is a restless, wandering spirit whose self-destructive and confrontational nature is only matched by his brutal but sporadic bouts with honesty; he keeps very little to himself, but it's always simmering just below the surface. It's peppered with great performances and a memorable story co-authored by Carole Eastman, and even the film's most unlikely detours all contribute to its devastating emotional climax. Criterion's stand-alone Blu-ray edition is just a recycled segment of their excellent 2010 America Lost and Found Blu-ray boxed set, with terrific A/V quality and a handful of informative extras. If you don't have the boxed set already, this excerpt is a fine appetizer. Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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