3,5 Stars out of 4
It’s as if the archetypal muscleman has a heart of gold. James Dean himself carries a grandeur persona as that notorious rebel without a cause — he cares about nothing, while really caring about so much. It takes him a while to get the girl, but he always does. It takes him a while to triumph, but he ultimately pulls through. Rebel Without a Cause is not necessarily pampered by its simple plot, nor is it underwhelming in its emotional display. We have a hunk with elaborate sentiment. James Dean proves to be more than the robust here in director Nicholas Ray’s honest yet candidly crystalline version of teen life. We easily can comprehend the material behind Rebel Without a Cause, but it breaks ground in its performances and stylistic display. Ray knows how to execute those vehement love scenes and knows when to place you in dejectedness. Rebel Without a Cause is not a tragedy, it’s more of a choral adventure into the youth.
We don’t need no education. Rebel is more keen on what happens outside the playground, where punks play chicken and jab each other with switch blades. Dean plays Jim Stark, a fairly bourgeois name, but his brown jacket symbolizes his affirmed individuality (and suddenly, the bells ring — this was also Lynchian ground in Wild at Heart with Sailor’s favourite jacket — Rebel is indeed a legendary piece). Jim encounters friends and foes. He forms a touching camaraderie with John “Plato” Crawford (Sal Mineo), ironically far from a philosophic virtuoso and more of a nimble counterpart to Jim. It’s hard to describe their friendship — is it brotherly love or a sympathetic magnetism? This is the grandest enigma of the film.
The rest is easy to pierce. Jim has a romance with the alluring Judy (Natalie Wood). They do not engage in coital quirks, as Rebel separates itself from that subject matter, more inundated in the authentic emotions, not the unneeded sexual content. Rebel thrives on endearing friendship not pretentious melodrama. These people actually seem like feasible companions — they understand each other and they can somehow comprehend their own flaws and rebellious urges.
They all “gotta do something.” They drag race, fight each other, even inadvertently kill each other just for that aforementioned honour. The honour is intangible, none of these characters here really seem heroic, just human. Ray crafts his characters with the substance of typicality — this isn’t a foreshadowed affair of the watershed year. Anti-heroes be not present in Rebel Without A Cause. In fact, none of these characters really are the rebellious type. Just lost in their perceived idea of resistance. But refrain, Rebel isn’t quite a tragedy on the loss of individuality.
James Dean plays Jim with interest. There’s so much more to him than the looks, complacent temperament, and all. He is buried in a tumultuous maelstrom of emotion. When his eyes glimmer with a youthful charm, Rebel extends itself beyond bad boy caricatures. Dean knows what he is doing. Jim is really a sincere guy, not too caught up in his own cynicism of society. Really is he at all that cynical? Arguably, he tries to see the best in people, but ultimately he finds trouble. John is parentless and has a black maid as a guardian (a mishandled matter by Ray). He goes off the deep end and Dean finally has a chance to inundate his character with a form of redemption – helping a lost and delirious friend, in a sense, he is rescuing himself.
Rebel ends on a dichotomy of sad/happy. Death prevails but so does life. However, Ray gets caught up in off-tone drama. It takes too long for that redemption to come. Ray, for most of the film, could craft all the scenes with such finesse. The dialogue really sounds better than it is — the ’50s slander isn’t too overly permeating. But the emotion at the finale devolves into viscous sensationalized drama. Is this a redemption story coated over a hokey action climax? Get to the point, Ray. He eventually does. But another problem arises. Rebel closes on unfair ends. Its racial justification is too contentious — *SPOILER the black maid is left to anguish and Dean more or less walks off into the sunset. *END SPOILER Rebel comes off a little thin here. From what has mostly been an honest yet at times bleak formula of the youth devolves into a racial-depiction misstep.
But Dean thrives here. He is simply unstoppable. His likeableness emits on the screen and he makes this ‘rebel’ more than just a West Side Story knock off protagonist. Even the love story has that originality for it to last; Jim and Judy are very intimate but yet they care more about getting to understand each other, as the world they live in is always misunderstanding them. I suppose that’s why Jim has that jacket — it is something that will always support him — in the best of times and worst of times. But Rebel Without a Cause isn’t a character study, it focalizes the youth with Dean being the midpoint of this scrutinization. He’s good and that makes the journey not necessarily a film on inner and outer rivalries but on the representation of life. From this, Ray fittingly finds his cause.