Filmsite Movie Review
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

After arriving in Washington State, Bobby and Rayette pull into a motel for the night. Rayette wears a see-through black teddy lingerie and gets into bed with Bobby, asking him if he is depressed about his father, and then blaming herself for his mood ("I imagine it's me, then, isn't it?"). She suggests that she could catch a Greyhound bus home if he is unhappy with her, and he cracks: "Oh, you're not gonna kill yourself this time, I wish I'd known." She hints that she can't sleep and wants sex, and starts counting sheep out-loud, and mentioning that he has a "cold shoulder" for her. She constantly chatters to him, aggravating him: "If you wouldn't open your mouth, everything would be just fine." She turns an imaginary key to lock her lips: "Tick a lock," and he rolls over next to her to make love - as the scene fades.

The next morning outside the motel room, Bobby insists on visiting his family alone for a few days, knowing she is too offbeat for them: "They wouldn't be prepared for my bringing anyone." He gives her a box of cash while she waits for him, recommending: "If you can't do what I'm asking you, why don't you just take the money and go on back south with it?" He stresses that his family responsibility to visit his dying father is "not something that I want to do." She acquieses quickly: "There's stuff for me to do" - such as reading magazines and watching TV.

He must take a car ferry (under cloudy skies) to the separated island where his family's home is located. After pulling up to the expansive, two-story home at the end of a one-lane country road, he enters and hears piano playing in the music room - (3) Mozart's E-Flat Maj. Concerto, K. 271. He wanders into the plush and refined living room, reminded of old memories. He pauses before the music room door before entering, where he sees two individuals playing pianos opposite each other:

  • Carl Fidelio Dupea (Ralph Waite), Bobby's distant, uptight brother with a neck brace
  • Catherine Van Oost (Susan Anspach), Carl's musical student and his fiancee/lover, a very attractive female, with long and curly blonde hair; she has been visiting at the Dupea home for two months

In another room, his compassionate sister Tita is grooming the dying father Nicholas' (William Challee) hair, as he sits immobile and stricken-dumb in a wheelchair with eyes half-closed and completely oblivious (Bobby: "He doesn't even know who the hell I am"). At lunch, the incapacitated father is spoon-fed by white-uniformed male nurse Spicer (John P. Ryan). Bobby is reminded that he hasn't been home for at least a few years, and Catherine learns what has occupied his time: "Odd jobs of work here and there. Nothing too interesting." Although he claims he isn't passing judgment on Bobby's long absence from the family, Carl regards his brother's adventures (which he claims are none of his business) as "non-sensical." After the meal is over and the table is vacated, Bobby is left uncomfortably in the presence of his non-comprehending father.

Later on the grounds with Bobby, near the water's edge, Tita explains that their father can still express approval or disapproval from his eyes. He doesn't agree: "Some range! I can't take much more of seeing him sitting there like a stone." When she asks if he'll stay for awhile, he shakes his head to indicate 'No,' but answers: "I don't know."

During his stay, Bobby takes an interest in Catherine who appears more in synch with him than anyone else in the film. He approaches her after horse-riding in the afternoon. He jokes about it being dangerous: "You play the piano all day and then jump on a horse, you could get cramps." She enjoys the invigorating activity, although he replies: "I don't like to get too invigorated myself." With all the options afforded to her there (such as concerts on the mainland, fishing, and boating), she is never bored with her safe, unchallenging, limited and sheltered existence - and somewhat chained down or immobilized by her 'impotent' fiancee Carl. In contrast, the energetic and troubled Bobby regards life on the island as uninteresting, boring and too safe, with not much to do. She plans on a hot bath and soak, reading music, and resting, and more practice the next day - although she states she will be free the day after, when Carl travels to the mainland for hydrotherapy.

During the evening meal, Catherine asks Bobby about how strange it is that he no longer plays: "One thing I find very difficult to imagine is how one could have this incredible background in music, and then just walk away from it without giving it a second thought." He responds: "I gave it a second thought...I've played a little bit here and there." He tells her that he was once paid to be a rehearsal pianist for a Las Vegas musical revue. When Catherine incredulously puts down his musical effort ("You don't call that music") - he insists: "Oh yes I do. It's music." He gives a rousing, mock, play-acting rendition of the commercial show, with pantomiming piano playing and vocalization, causing Catherine and Carl to get up and leave the table.

In the living room that evening, Bobby falls asleep in front of the fire, and abruptly wakes up the following rainy morning to the thumping sounds of the care-giver Spicer lifting heavy weights outside. Bobby briefly phones Rayette at the motel, and suggests it would be all right if she left: ("If you're gone, you're gone"). Outside while Bobby is defeating Carl in three games of table-tennis, Tita mentions her romantic interest in Spicer, an ex-sailor. She is urged to play table-tennis with Spicer, not with Bobby.

Carl leaves for his appointment on the mainland, promising to be back the following day. Bobby meets up with Catherine in the music room when she returns from shopping in the village, with a bouquet-vase of flowers. She requests that he play the piano for her - and he obliges with (4) Chopin's Prelude in E Minor Op. 28 # 4. She is profoundly surprised and impressed by his serious playing. During the musical performance, the camera pans 360 degrees around from right to left, viewing family photographs from the past on the wall: a framed, childhood photo of young Robert, two older images of him, and family genealogical pictures. He dismissively explains that his promising musical talent peaked at eight years of age:

I picked the easiest piece that I could think of. I first played it when I was eight years old, and I played it better then.

Although she is deeply moved by the piece, he claims he has no inner feeling or emotion while playing. When he suggests that some of her enthusiasm might rub off on him and that he could get "interested" in her, she interprets it as an improper romantic advance, resists, and leaves the room. Shortly later in her upstairs bedroom, she admits that she felt embarrassed for responding so truthfully to his playing. He claims it was "necessary" to calculatedly play and make a move for her when Carl was absent:

Bobby: I faked a little Chopin. You faked a big response.
Catherine: I don't think that's accurate.
Bobby: Up till now, all I've been getting from you is meaningful looks at the dinner table, and a lot of vague suggestions about the day after tomorrow.
Catherine: I am not conscious of having given you any particular looks. And as for the 'day after tomorrow,' this is the 'day after tomorrow,' and I am, unfortunately, seeing you. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to take a bath.

As she rummages for a bottle of bath oil, he aggressively knocks some of the fragrances over and chastises her: "What are you doing screwing around with all this crap?" [The word "crap" again, often used by the discontented hitchhiker.] Only slightly intimidated, she admits his language is not very "charming" - and he agrees: "It's direct." She again forcefully asks him to leave, but he makes no effort to. Instead, he slams the door, grabs her shoulders, forces her onto the bed, and tells her: "Let's be serious." When she resists, he orders her to "shut up," and then she quietly challenges him: "No inner feeling?" He forces a kiss from her, strips her sweater from her torso, and they begin to make love. His sexual conquest has followed after his masterful piano playing.

After a dissolve, they are together in bed. She is looking up at the ceiling, describing her first (short) marriage at age 17 to a cellist named Joseph - who introduced her to Carl. She claims that he restored her confidence: "He's much more substantial than you give him credit for being." She hints that she has more free time in the morning before Carl returns.

Unexpectedly and unannounced, the restless Rayette arrives by taxi the next day. At the dinner table, her dim-wittedness, unsophisticated and redneck sensibilities are on full display as she notes her surroundings after being at the motel for two weeks: "This certainly is an improvement on the motel and the coffee shop. How could you have ever left such a beautiful place, Bobby?" She blames Bobby for keeping her sequestered at the motel - until she ran out of money, and hopes she isn't intruding. Carl graciously offers her accommodations: "You're perfectly welcome to stay here." When Rayette asks about the naturalness of Catherine's hair, and requests ketchup for her food, Bobby is rudely exasperated and furious with her, tosses his napkin on the table, and vacates the room. Rayette valiantly excuses his behavior as moodiness.

Bobby leaves the island for the mainland, where he is drinking at a fisherman's bar, to the tune of Tammy Wynette's "Don't Touch Me":

Now don't give me something that you might take away
To have you, then lose you, it wouldn't be smart on my part
Don't open the door to heaven, if I can't come in
Oh, don't touch me, if you don't love me, sweetheart

After the bar closes, he stumbles down the boat ramp, and awakens on the cold wooden planks the next morning at dawn with a major hangover. He returns to the island on the ferry, and as he drives off from the dock, he passes Catherine in a line of cars waiting to board the ferry, to pick up some friends. While holding up two lines of cars, he insists he must talk to Catherine. She is in a hurry, but confesses that her love-making wasn't fair to Carl: "I haven't been being fair to Carl. I have to tell you that...I'm sorry everything's been so confusing."

In the living room that evening, Carl's friends, led by insufferable and pompous celibate Samia Glavia (Irene Dailey), are having a deeply metaphysical, pretentious discussion with some of the disinterested group (especially Bobby and Rayette). Samia's petulant discourse is about man's inhumanity and the "apocalyptic" existence of inherited aggression in mankind. The opinionated Samia has a negative view of humanity: "Aggression is prehistoric," and then questions the emotion of love: "Wouldn't you say that more ill has been done in the name of love than in the name of abomination?" Knowing that Catherine is a "romantic" who is about to be married, the speaker dismisses Catherine from the "objective" discussion. Standing up, Catherine defends herself ("I think these cold, objective discussions are aggressive") and disagrees with Samia's argumentative tone about aggression existing in the institution of marriage. Samia apologizes by downplaying Catherine's departure in front of the group: "That's reactive, but if I may say without dampening the spirit of your adventure..."

Unable to focus and concentrate on the heady topic, Rayette loudly and crassly tells Carl about a fluffy, baby kitty cat that Bobby had once given to her:

The little pussy cat you gave me. It had two little right front paws. I know I was crazy after her. We left her at some friend's house, and she got squashed flatter than a tortilla right outside their mobile home.

When Samia ridicules the uneducated Rayette and her crude vocabulary as an example to illustrate her point ("the choice of words juxtaposed with the image of a fluffy kitten. The enchantment of words squashed flat, etc., etc") - and gestures at her, Bobby unexpectedly comes to her defense for being mistreated:

Don't point at her, you creep!...Where the hell do you get the ass to tell anybody anything about class, or who the hell's got it, or what she typifies? You shouldn't even be in the same room with her, you pompous celibate...You're totally full of s--t. You're all full of s--t.

He runs from room to room searching for Catherine - he barges into Spicer's room where he finds Tita and Spicer in a state of undress on his bed. Spicer is giving Tita a back massage. The two get into a violent altercation that spreads to the kitchen, where Spicer puts Bobby in a vise-like headlock, jerks his body up and down, and commands: "Give up," until Bobby slumps to the floor.

The next day at the bayfront, Catherine and Bobby have an opportunity to finally talk. He struggles to convince her to give him a chance and possibly go away with him before she marries Carl. To answer him in a very articulate, clear-minded, confident but dignified fashion, she expresses her doubts about him and his instability. She accuses him of being incapable of real feelings of love for himself or anything else - revealing Bobby's 'real' soul to him:

It's useless...I'm trying to be delicate with you, but you just won't understand. I couldn't go with you. Not just because of Carl and my music, but because of you. You're a strange person, Robert. I mean, what will you come to? If a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love of his friends, family, work, something - how can he ask for love in return? I mean, why should he ask for it?

He accepts her apologetic assurances that she will be happy with Carl (in the dead and meaningless Dupea "rest home asylum"), after a long-delayed "Okay," but is profoundly hurt by her truthful yet distant candor.

In the next scene, the film's most powerful sequence, Bobby is viewed wheeling his father Nicholas in a wheelchair in the cold outdoors, as the sun sets. At the shoreline, he delivers a painful, one-sided, remorseful confession. He apologizes for his abandonment of his family and talent, for giving up on his responsibilities, and for not living up to his father's high ideals. Unable to explain his life's failings, he breaks down in tears mid-speech, and eventually apologizes:

I don't know if you'd be particularly interested in hearing anything about me, my life, I mean. Most of it doesn't add up to much that I could relate as a way of life that you'd approve of. I move around a lot. Not because I'm looking for anything, really, but - 'cause I'm getting away from things that get bad if I stay. Auspicious beginnings. You know what I mean?

I'm trying to imagine your, your half of this conversation...My feeling is, I don't know, that, uh, if you could talk, we probably wouldn't be talking. That's pretty much the way it got to be before I left. Are you all right? I don't know what to say.

Tita suggested that we try to - .I don't know. I think that she feels - I think that she feels that we've got some understanding to reach. She totally denies the fact that we were never that comfortable with one another to begin with. The best that I can do is apologize. We both know that I was never really that good at it, anyway.

He finally admits with sorrow at the end of their disappointing encounter: "I'm sorry it didn't work out." He slowly bows his head in front of his unresponsive father.

After he decides to return home with Rayette after over-staying his visit, Tita confronts Bobby on the porch for sneaking away without saying good-bye to her. He tells her: "I didn't want to say good-bye to anyone." However, for her, he smiles and states: "I'll say good-bye to you, Tita," and they hug each other.

While Bobby drives along, Rayette sings Tammy Wynette's "Don't Touch Me" as she leans into him, and smothers him with needy kisses:

Your kiss is like a drink when I am thirsty, Oh, and I'm thirsty
For you With all my heart But don't love me, then pretend
As though we've never even kissed, Don't touch me

Exasperated with her, he pushes her sexual advances away, and she flares up at him, but then softens: "Son of a bitch, Bobby! You quit pushin' me away like that! I've had enough of that to last me an entire lifetime! Why don't you just be good to me for a change? There isn't anybody gonna look after you AND love you, as good as I do. Did you hear me? Baby?" He ignores her amorous observation, and switches on the windshield wipers.

In the bleak final sequence, the two pull into a Gulf gas station to fill up his car. [Note: The "Gulf" station is significant - reflecting the significant 'gulf' or distance between them, and the disconnectedness between Bobby and all other human beings.] Rayette asks for change to buy a cup of coffee at the nearby Red Rooster Cafe, and he gives her his entire wallet (including, significantly, all his identifications). After a visit to the men's restroom where he stares into a mirror at himself and leaves his outer jacket, Bobby abandons her (and also ditches his car) without explanation. As a disenchanted lost soul, he catches a lift from a north-bound lumber logging truck toward Canada and freedom - as he had proposed earlier.

The driver asks if he has a jacket, and Bobby makes up a story about how his car burned and "everything in the car got the s--t burned out of it. Everything. All I've got is what I've got on." Literally, every thing in life for Bobby has turned to shit and he is headed to nowhere - literally. The driver promises they will travel to an even colder climate elsewhere and he could borrow a jacket:

"Where we're goin', it's gonna get colder than hell."

He responds: "No, it's okay. I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm fine." If he's traveling north, he's probably going into Canada, or even further - to the state of Alaska - the "clean" destination of the two hitchhikers. He is making the same mistaken choice that hitchhiker Palm did - an ill-fated decision to travel to an illusory "clean" place, to try and find himself. [Note: Symbolically, Bobby has now graduated from the basic 'five easy pieces' learned by all music students, and is ready for more advanced lessons - in life and death.]

Rayette stands in the front of the gas station, looking and wandering around, and walking to the men's restroom (off-camera) to look for Bobby, as the truck drives off. Literally and figuratively, Bobby is not there for her. The final shot of the film's unhappy ending is held for an interminably long time, without music.

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