Greetings again from the darkness. The film’s title has multiple meanings: “Life” Magazine as the source for the famous photographs we have seen so many times; the crossroads in “Life” of both rising star James Dean and photographer Dennis Stock; and a philosophical look at “Life” – how quickly things can change, and how we should appreciate the moments.
Director Anton Corbijn (A Most Wanted Man, The American) and screenwriter Luke Davies offer up a snapshot of 1955 as the not-quite-yet-famous James Dean (Dane DeHaan) traveled cross-country with photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) from Los Angeles to New York to Indiana. Each man was searching for their true self as Stock’s professional ambition and personal stress are palpable, while 24 year old Dean’s ambivalence about his pending superstardom borders on self-destructive.
DeHaan and Pattinson both underplay their roles, and it’s certainly more than a little confusing to see Pattinson in a movie about James Dean where he is not the actor playing the icon. DeHaan captures the low key, soft-spoken side of Dean but only teases at the “rebel” studio head Jack Warner (Sir Ben Kingsley) wanted so badly to control. We get a feel for Dean’s vision of challenging roles in quality productions … a commitment to the art of acting he no doubt sharpened in his time with acting guru Lee Strasberg. The story leans more heavily to the tale of photographer Stock, which is unfortunate, because he is significantly more awkward than interesting. Pattinson plays him as a social misfit who broods nearly as much as the “moody” young actor he is stalking through the streets.
The period look is well appointed, and we are privy to some of the moments of Dean’s life just prior to the release of East of Eden and his being cast in Rebel Without a Cause. His relationship with Pier Angelli (Alessandra Mastronardi), friendship with Eartha Kitt (Kelly McCreary), and his bond to the family and farm of his childhood in Indiana are all captured. In fact, it’s the clumsy relationship with Stock that comes across as the least realistic portion … though it may very well have happened this way. Even the manner in which the famous photographs were taken is underplayed … although it makes for a terrific tie-in with the closing credits where the real Stock/Life Magazine photographs are displayed.
It’s now been 60 years that James Dean has exemplified Hollywood “cool”, a label that can never be removed due to his tragic death in 1955 after making only three films. Capturing the essence of what made Dean cool is unnecessary because it’s present in every scene of those three films, as well as the photographs taken by Dennis Stock. That’s all the legacy either man needs.