James Dean died when he was twenty-four.
In spite of – or, more likely, because of – his untimely death, Dean became a screen icon, one of the great initiators of ‘the Method.’ He gave three great performances in three great movies, two of which landed him an Oscar nomination.
In cinema terms, he’s god, he’s Jesus, he’s untouchable.
In Life, Anton Corbijn’s latest film, he’s a moaning brat with a nasally voice, who speaks in teenage cod-philosophy to which no one calls bullshit. Perhaps that is what James Dean was like, but it doesn’t matter. When it comes to this golden-haired god of cinematic history, we don’t care much for the truth.
Life allows us to peek at James Dean (Dane DeHaan) through the lens of photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson). Stock accompanies a pre-fame Dean through his various New York haunts and later his rural home of Indiana, trying to capture glimpses of the man behind the myth.
Pattinson is growing into a more interesting actor by the day. If he continues to work with the likes of Cronenberg and Herzog, it’ll be no time before the scars of Twilight fade entirely. Here, his Stock is jittery and uncool, without ever becoming nebbish and caricatured. He’s also a father, but a bad one, who shows very little love for his son.
It’s an intriguing and watchable performance, and may Pattinson’s filmography fill with its kind.
DeHaan, however, doesn’t fare as well as Pattinson. Regardless of vocal timbre and first-draft dialogue, DeHaan’s performance is missing Dean’s trademark atavistic and animalistic nature. Dean was a man of whims and instincts, a guise that DeHaan can’t quite pull off. His performance is sterile; his Dean neutered.
At one stage, Dean pulls lover Pier Angeli down onto a couch and the two kiss passionately. Only, in actuality it looks like a squirrel licking a dead fish.
Also, for a film that is centred on photography, Life has little to say about the craft. Which is even more surprising, considering Anton Corbijn was a rock photographer. The process is boiled down to a few standard darkroom scenes, and there is no psychological study of it either. Photography captures moments and, due to his early death, each moment for Dean has a retro-importance.
But this isn’t explored or expanded on in any great depth.
Instead we get Dean moaning and being flimsy and acting like a trust-fund prat. In fact, the best scenes in the film are when Ben Kingsley’s Jack Warner berates and belittles a put-in-his-place Dean.
However, with a real sense of time and place, Life is a pleasant watch that doesn’t ask too many dramatic questions so don’t expect any answers. A strong, subtle performance from Pattinson (and a loud, blatant one from Kingsley) helps to elevate Life above its teenage pondering.
Pity about its Dean, though.
By Rían Smith
To learn more about Life, either the film or the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, follow Rían on Twitter.