After the lysergic cut-up routine/sitcom deconstruction that was his directorial debut, Head (1968), Bob Rafelson executed an abrupt about-face: He produced, co-wrote and directed this slice-of-life character study in dissatisfaction and irresponsibility. Eschewing the rapid-fire editing and psychotronic tomfoolery of the earlier film for a sense of restraint and quiet observation, a mood that epitomizes many of the finest films of the period, Rafelson turns his sights on Bobby Dupea, one-time child prodigy turned full-time cad, slumming it among the dust-blasted oil rigs of Bakersfield, until he’s summoned back to his family’s Pacific Northwest island estate owing to the failing health of the paterfamilias.
Jack Nicholson dives headfirst into the role in a star-making performance (after his breakout role in the BBS-produced Easy Rider the year before) that’s refreshingly free of the caricature and emotion-telegraphing that would come to dominate many of his later roles. Nicholson manages to render the mercurial Bobby Dupea utterly sympathetic, even as he wreaks emotional havoc on everyone around him. Whether he’s telling a fed-up waitress to “hold [his sandwich] between [her] knees,” or circling like a predator around Catherine (played by the willowy Susan Anspach) in attempted seduction, or crouching in front of his stroke-silenced father (off whom one still manages to sense waves of emanating disapproval ), Nicholson registers every thought and emotion with a precision and intensity that’s breathtaking. At one and the same time, the role is a celebration of the outsider, the dissatisfied loner and wanderer (an archetypal figure in popular culture), as well as a searing interrogation of certain forms of American masculinity, and a cutting look at the vicissitudes of class and culture in our supposedly egalitarian postwar society.
There is perhaps no more quietly devastating scene in 70s American cinema than the one where Bobby is beguiled by Catherine into performing on the piano again. As he plays a haunting Chopin Prelude, the camera moves slowly around the room, panning along walls strewn with family photos. Confronting us are not only portraits of a young, bright-eyed Bobby, but also professional shots of the bearded, leonine patriarch. The sense of loss and squandered promise is achingly palpable. With a single shot and the most economical of means, Rafelson establishes and then demolishes an entire family history. When Catherine responds (to the situation, as much as to his performance), Bobby growls dismissively: “I faked a little Chopin. You faked a big response.”
Another memorable scene occurs a while later in the film, after Karen Black (whose Rayette modulates between an earnest, almost painful carnal need and brash vulgarity), tired of waiting around for Bobby’s call, arrives unannounced at the family home. The Dupeas are hosting a cocktail party and, in the middle of the room, a “cultured” woman holds forth, spewing out a venomous intellectual diatribe, full of condescension and condemnation for those she holds to be her inferiors, Rayette foremost among them, owing in particular to her braying voice and idiomatic grammar. Ever the contrarian, Bobby springs to Rayette’s defense, calling down the other woman as a barren, useless shrew and telling her that she’s “full of shit,” a charge he reiterates several times. The moment signals not only a clear-cut set of economic and gender issues but, more importantly, Bobby’s complete rejection of his family and everything they represent. There’s nothing left for it but to say his farewells and light out for the territories.
But before he can do so, he must dispose of Rayette. The justly famous – and devastating – final scene plays out in a single long shot: Having given his wallet to Rayette (his idea of providing for her and their unborn child) and left his jacket in the restroom, Bobby hitches a ride with a lumber-truck driver. As the truck moves out of the parking lot and down the highway away from the camera , Rayette emerges from the station, casting about in vain for Bobby. Imposed upon her fruitless search, the end credits roll…