Directed by Anton Corbijn.
Starring Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan, Ben Kingsley, Joel Edgerton and Alessandra Mastronardi.
Photographer Dennis Stock pursues James Dean for an open spread photo essay for LIFE magazine leading up to the actor’s premiere East of Eden.
In 2007 Anton Corbijn’s Control focused on the young troubled life of Joy Division’s vocalist Ian Curtis. It was a film unafraid to unpick its protagonist, and to focus its lens on the grit, grime, and even the mundane to portray a fuller, richer character study. As Corbijn returns to familiar territory with film icon James Dean (Dane DeHaan) one expects a similar non-romanticised narrative, and more so given the iconic, almost mythical, status of its protagonist. Consequently, Life lessens its focused vision and allows the mythical lexicon to remain unhindered.
Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) proclaims from his first encounter of the future star Dean, and his cinematic performance, that this young rising actor will be a phenomenon. Whether or not this is wholly cemented in fact – we have only his word – it’s important to note the screenplay was not based on any singular source. Screenwriter Luke Davies began writing a biopic of Dean, but found greater inspiration from Dean’s photographer. As such, with no singular source to present a cohesive narrative, nor an amalgamation of memoirs/diaries to unpick some of the biased recollections, it becomes quickly apparent the film is afraid to delve deeper into its characters.
With reoccurring references, or as I began to note ‘meta-anachronisms’, to the future stardom of Dean, many of its golden moments were exchanged for a cheap laugh rather than nuanced reflexivity. As Stock pleads with his agent John Morris (Joel Edgerton) for advancements on this risky venture, Morris simply responds, “Who’s the James Dean guy?” Only, instead of an off-handed remark, it is instead played for laughs; more so as he repeats the name thrice, and then asks his secretary the same thing. The major pitfalls of this device derive from Warner Bros. mogul Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley), where one is not sure if purposefully pantomime, or an uncertainty as to where to pitch the character. Warner was known for his off-kilter humour, yet the dialogue was not always for comedic value.
Its dramatic moments to view coldly the brooding actor were impenetrable due to its jarring tonal shifts. More so when one is invited into their respective character back-stories, their tumultuous past and present lives, and them desperately holding it all together.
These moments are given life by the nuanced environment, and the performances by its protagonists – quite frankly, the only highlights one can derive from this. DeHaan’s performance as Dean is eerie, and close to mimicry. The aloof nature that was Dean, the self-analytical, albeit self-absorbed, obsession is portrayed for equal measure of laughs and derision. There are moments where the film pierces through the ultra-cool legend to highlight, without retrospect, this rebellious behaviour is selfish and a nuisance to those working with/for him. Pattinson’s Stock, Corbijn’s and Davies’ original subject, is criminally underused in this film. The awkwardness, the struggling photographer/artist, and the only one who recognises Dean’s superstar potential, all culminate to forge a character that remains outside of himself. To have two socially awkward interact with each other is less for laughs and more for self-discovery.
Life struggles to maintain one’s attention with its jarring tonal shifts, its ‘meta-anachronisms’, and its fear to scrutinise its protagonists. With a number of dramatic segments and character self-reflexivity dropped for plot purposes, one has to wonder, ‘What is the story?’
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★