LIFE Review

By the time he was twenty-four years old James Dean had starred in three major films, would become a cultural icon symbolizing the tone of teenage America, but he would also be dead. While this public persona of the "rebel without a cause" pushed Dean to the forefront of pop culture we come to learn in director Anton Corbijn's (The American, A Most Wanted Man) new film that the real Dean was not as his persona suggested, but more the quiet kid in an acting class simply searching for something tangible, something that wasn't as arbitrary as the fame he was suddenly coming into. In Life, we pick up with Dean in 1955 shortly after wrapping East of Eden and just prior to landing the role in Rebel Without a Cause-only seven months or so before his untimely death. Surprisingly, Dean is not the main character of this story though, no, that would be photographer Dennis Stock (played here by Robert Pattinson). Stock was largely a set photographer employed by Magnum, a photo agency, who met Dean at a party thrown by director Nicholas Ray (writer/director of Rebel). At this point in time, prior to East of Eden coming out, Dean wasn't even a household name, but after the actor and Stock hit it off at the party and Dean invited his new friend to a screening of his new film it became clear to Stock that there was something unique about the young man who couldn't have seemed more estranged or disillusioned with the ideas Hollywood was throwing at him. It is in this attitude, this kind of presented exterior by Dean with which Corbijn is intent on exploiting and exploring through he and Stock's relationship. More than anything though, this is a film about the relationship that develops between two different types of artists: the one who creates and the one who pulls back the layers of that creation.

James Dean (Dane DeHaan) and Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) in Life.
Given Dean is the more famous of our two main characters, the focus is immediately drawn to the actor, but this is as much a story about Stock as it is Dean with the two finding out how to respond to some of life's tougher questions by finding answers in each other. In essence, Life is something of a study in existential crises and how to overcome the fact there is nothing we can do about time inevitably passing or perceptions of who we might become, but rather to simply find a happiness in life and maintain it as long as one can. Stock has slightly more perspective than the still very young, but inherently wise Dean and so one can feel the initial dissonance between the two; Stock wanting what Dean seems to so naturally possess and at such a young age. Of course, we're never privy to what others find enviable about ourselves and given we're largely seeing these events through Stock's eyes it's hard for him, and occasionally us, to see that Stock possesses qualities Dean finds admirable and is likely enviable of as well. In reality, Dean likely had many of the same struggles with desperation, but is too cool to admit he's worked hard or that he wanted such potential fame. In fact, Dean does the opposite by making it seem as if he works hard to keep himself distanced from such cliched temptations. Dean evaluates Stock as someone who is desperate and can't see past his own ambition while at the same time appreciates him for seeing something in his talent. Dean would like to think that this is all Stock knows of his position, but we can see that as much as Stock comes off the desperate one-searching for his big break and hoping to find it in a photo essay on Dean-that Dean needs him as much as he needs Dean. At one point, early in the film and in a moment of vulnerability, Dean flat-out asks Stock if he's going to make him famous. It is this symbiotic relationship that proves to be both the basis of the ideas Corbijn wants to convey and the strongest aspect of the film altogether.

As Dean, Dane DeHaan doesn't immediately come to embody what many think of as this epitome of a teen heartthrob, the originator of such matinee looks along with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, but as the film progresses one is able to buy into the performance more and more. It is undoubtedly an odd choice given some of the stark physical differences, but DeHaan has clearly displayed in past roles that he has the chops to take on any challenge and, in this case, James Dean is no different. As Dean, DeHaan becomes this soft-spoken, but easy going presence that seems so self-assured it's slightly scary. He becomes irritated by the idea of succumbing to mainstream entertainment-searching only for the best roles he can find; ones that offer him the opportunity to do quality acting. This genuine quest of Dean's is one we also find to be genuine even though we can see in DeHaan's performance that he's coming to appreciate the advantages that come with popularity. Like most relationships, including he and Stock's, there is a symbiotic one between fame, the clout it brings and using that clout to make projects closest to one's heart. Our journey with DeHaan's version of Dean mainly concerns learning to walk this line and if he can remain true to the idea he has of himself or if he too will be swallowed up by the machine as it seems his counterpart has. As Stock, Pattinson actually delivers the more affecting performance. Stock's insecurities are outweighed by his drive as is apparent when he takes the risk of attending Ray's party or calling Magnum director John Morris (Joel Edgerton) and pitching the idea of documenting this up and coming actor. His drive is clear again in his persistence with which he pursues the irritatingly coy Dean. When Dean finally comes around to the idea that Stock's talent and vision for him might meet with his own quite nicely, the wall is brought down allowing both actors to dig deeper into what made these two men tick and better explain why their relationship was good for one another at this particular time in each of their lives.
James Dean, despite being on the cusp of fame, is still uncertain of his future and where he wants to go.
If one is lucky enough to stumble across something they really love in life, something they are truly passionate about then to be able to not only pursue, but find some level of accomplishment in that trade is the most satisfying feeling in the world. In Life, we see one of our two lead characters experience this moment while the other continues to play things by ear, only hoping he's making the right decision for his desired future. But while the characters in play here serve as each other's guiding lights to a more prosperous period in each of their lives these names, people and places are only a vehicle to discuss what Corbijn finds interesting about their circumstances. This is as much an exploration in the guise of those who long to exist off their creations, but must deal with the recognition that comes along with that than anything else and James Dean just so happens to be the perfect subject. After the death of his mother, Dean was sent to live with his aunt and uncle on a Quaker farm in Indiana. By all accounts, he enjoyed every moment of being in this environment-almost to the point he wishes he never left. What then, was pulling this guy to be an actor? What was it that led this seemingly shy boy who felt no one understood him to proclaim emotions to as wide an audience as possible? If Luke Davies screenplay, Corbijn's direction and this film as a whole have anything to contribute to the mythology of James Dean it's that, despite feeling he belonged in Indiana, he never felt at home anywhere and that somehow he was issued the task of making his way home again. Add to this the realizations, the perspective, and the truths that Stock brought into Dean's life on the cusp of his superstardom and you have a relationship that informed what would become one of the most iconic personalities in American history. To be able to tag along on the cliff notes of this journey will be endlessly fascinating to those who love film history and while the film itself doesn't remain as consistently intriguing as it should, the two lead performers enhance the experience enough to certify it a memorable one.    

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