REBEL IN THE RYE
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Victor Garber, Zoey Deutch, Sarah Paulson, Brian d’Arcy James, Hope Davis, Lucy Boynton
Directed by Danny Strong
Written by Danny Strong
Based on “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” by Kenneth Slawenski
Produced by Bruce Cohen, Jason Shuman, Danny Strong, Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill, Thad Luckinbill
Cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau
Edited by Joseph Krings
Music by Bear McCrearey
In July of 1951, a startlingly, admirably, inventive and groundbreaking progressive novel of teenage angst, anxiety and coming-of-age tribulations was published, and seemingly overnight the world of twentieth-century writing, literature, novels, books, publishing and teenage rebellion were wonderfully, positively tossed and turned upsidedown and inside out, shaking up society at the just right time when society needed some serious shaking up. That wonderful, endearing, enduring and classic novel, of course, was J.D. Salinger’s brilliant “The Catcher in the Rye,” which is literally one of the most popular, influential and revered books of all time.
But a concurrent interesting story that arose alongside the phenomenon of “The Catcher in the Rye”—a phenomenon that, in a sense, continues to this day–is the story of the book’s author, Salinger, whose life story in some respects and on some levels could be considered as interesting as the travails experienced by “Catcher’s” equally-fascinating and complex protagonist, Holden Caulfield. Salinger had some trouble in school—like Caulfield; Salinger had some disagreements and tensions with his family—like Caulfield; Salinger was properly skeptical and wary about the very real phoniness and corruptness of various people in his life—like Caulfield; Salinger was indeed a rebel for speaking up, speaking his mind, sticking to his strong convictions and standing up for his individuality, rebelliousness and what he believed in—like Caulfield; and Salinger was troubled and influenced in his life by very real stress, anxiety and angst prompted by horrific experiences as a soldier overseas in World War II. Holden Caulfield, at 16, was not, of course, a World War II vet, but the anxieties, depression and stress displayed by Caulfield the character in “Catcher” are obviously, many observers and historians and academics say, a reflection of Salinger’s very real post-war stress, depression and war-related problems. Add to all of this a brief relationship that Salinger had with Eugene O’Neill’s daughter Oona—who scandalously turned her back on Salinger and married a much, much, much-older Charlie Chaplin; constant early rejection from numerous magazines, publishers and editors (that’s not really new to any writer, but it’s still stressful); a father that doesn’t quite understand Salinger, his writing or writing as a career in general; a progressive turn to Eastern customs and practices to relax and eliminate distractions; and an increasing desire to simply retreat from those distractions and to simply be left alone amid an increasingly crazy world, and Salinger’s true-life story takes on fascinating, interesting, entertaining and—natch—literary and filmic dimensions that cry out for good stories in novels and film.
Thus, actor, screenwriter, producer and now-director Danny Strong wisely saw all of this when he just happened to spot Kenneth Slawenski’s book, “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” at a bookstore in New York City while out on a walk in 2013, subsequently bought the book, read it—and soon smartly determined that Salinger’s complex, multi-layered, story-rich life was indeed worthy of a film biography.
Thank goodness for all of us for Strong’s intelligent curiosity and subsequent determination to make that film because the end result, Strong’s excellent-on-all-levels “Rebel in the Rye” is thoroughly engaging, intelligent, entertaining, provocative, insightful, full of meaning and lessons and themes, and, simply, one of the best films of 2017 so far. Strong has crafted a film biography worthy of Salinger—it’s, to the film’s credit, consistently positive and respectful toward Salinger, as the film should be; it’s literate; it’s eloquent; it’s about many things, with many morals, lessons and messages to think about; it’s about the trials and tribulations and difficulties of the writer’s life and the artist’s life in general; it’s about being a respectable rebel, meaning a person who knows enough about what they are doing to stand up for their convictions and stand up for what they know is right; it tells a great story—a great story, not just a good story; it’s about the bizarre, varying, myriad collection of odd, mysterious, often-irritating and crazy characteristics that are people in general; and it’s, at times, simply about letting a person simply live their life they want to live their life, free of all of the stupidity, ignorance, hassles, corruption, lies and phoniness of so many people. If some of this sounds like Salinger becomes mixed up with Caulfield, well, that’s exactly right—on some—not all, but some—levels, Salinger is Caulfield and Caulfield is Salinger. And that mix of emotions that are carried heavily by Salinger and by Caulfield is prominently shown, hinted at and analyzed in Strong’s smart, multi-layered film.
Beyond the basic intelligence, depth, literate aspects, psychological aspects and storytelling aspects, Strong’s film biography has wonderful, insightful, smart dialogue, often so imbued with meaning and depth, the film easily warrants a second viewing; all of the performances by a wonderfully-cast, beautifully-acted cast is consistently top-notch, from the leads on down to the supporting-role actors; Strong’s own direction is exceptional from start to finish—and that’s notable, as “Rebel in the Rye” is Strong’s debut as a feature film director, and this achievement is just, again, exceptional; the production value is extremely high for the film, with beautifully period-evocative cinematography from Kramer Morganthau that evokes a wonderful atmosphere adherent to the film’s main time period, roughly the late 1930s to the early and mid 1950s; a timing and pacing that keeps the film interesting, fast-paced, upbeat and energetic despite being a dialogue-oriented, mostly-serious dramatic period film; great, wonderfully artistic period detail that includes period-proper costumes, wardrobe, hairstyles, props, cars, music, settings (from New York City townhomes to New Hampshire country homes to publishing offices to university classrooms to jazz clubs to even horrific, bloody World War II battlefields and German concentration camps) and other period details; and wonderfully period-evocative music from Bear McCreary. Strong simply hits high notes at every filmic level in his astounding directorial debut, and he is to be praised for taking that simple inspiration from a New York City walk in 2013 and seeing that inspiration through to an instantly-memorable film four years later about one of publishing’s most famous authors and the creation of one of the most famous books of all time.
“What moved me the most about his journey was the theme of art being created from trauma,” Strong himself says in a letter to the public distributed by Landmark Theatres. “I truly believe his story could be inspiring to countless people; writers thinking they could never succeed or any artist—actor, dancer, painter, musician—facing the daunting self-doubt of deciding to commit one’s life to their art. Beyond the world of artists, I also feel Salinger’s journey could be deeply beneficial to anyone who has suffered trauma, whether in war, abuse, violence, or something as simple as a bad accident. The lessons Salinger had to learn to overcome his trauma could help millions of people suffering from the devastating effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“For me, this is a story of a writer, an artist, a veteran and a survivor. J.D. Salinger certainly wasn’t a perfect person (making him all the more fascinating subject matter for a film), but after surviving unspeakable horror, he would end up channeling his trauma into works of art that would move millions and millions of people for decades to come. It’s a story I find fascinating, inspiring, funny, sad and powerful. His tale is a unique American journey and I am truly humbled and honored to get to share it with you.”
The myriad themes, messages, morals and lessons presented in “Rebel in the Rye” make the film just incredibly intelligent. There’s the difficulties—extreme difficulties—of the horrific malady of post-traumatic stress disorder that people experience after extremely stressful, depressing, shocking and horrendous situations. In Salinger’s real-life case, he suffered for a brief time after the war from the impact of the horrors of the war, to the point that he had to be institutionalized. Fortunately, Salinger overcame his post-war stress and became the writer of a stream of wonderful, memorable and influential stories, story collections, poems, letters, novellas and novels, of course. But a somewhat hidden message of “Rebel” is that Salinger was lucky to emerge from this post-war stress, but he still carried some of that stress with him in his life. Another message from “Rebel” is that while Salinger was able to leave that institution and be productive, others are not always so lucky—some people Salinger knew and cared about didn’t come back from the war, of course. The very real horrors of war and the impact that those horrors have on people when they re-enter society after those are important messages and themes of “Rebel in the Rye.”
Another interesting message of the film is that, simply—or, not so simply—sometimes people just want to be left alone in life to live their life the way that they want to live their life, free of the distractions—that’s the term that Salinger’s Eastern medicine, meditation and reflection teachers use when describing just what it is that bothers people in life—that society throws down on people. And, another part of this message teaches, there’s nothing wrong with being secluded and living life on one’s own, individualistic, guarded and private terms. There is nothing wrong with that, on any level. And J.D. Salinger wanted very much to just live his life on his own terms, free of life’s many distractions. And he did just that—after 1965, he didn’t publish another word, as the film reminds us, and he lived his life comfortably on his country estate in New Hampshire. And he lived a good, long life—he died at the strong old age of 91 in January, 2010. So good for him—good for J.D. Salinger. “Rebel in the Rye” teaches that if someone—anyone, really, but even someone who is famous and revered and loved—wants to simply live life in seclusion, away from distractions, then of course they can.
One more of the many important messages to note in “Rebel in the Rye” is the lesson that sometimes it’s good, important and beneficial to be a rebel. To stick up for your beliefs and belief systems. To stand up not only for what is right, but to stand up for what you believe is right. To not give in to misguided, dumb, stupid, commercial, base, materialistic, monetary, corrupt, conniving—and phony—ideas, suggestions, plans, projects and temptations. Salinger voraciously guarded the integrity of his work, even from the start when he hadn’t even been published yet—he fought for his work as he wrote it, and he fought because he believed so strongly in what he had written, and he believed that he was right. Of course, Salinger was indeed proven to be right. His early fights for the integrity of his work, which is an important portion of the early acts of “Rebel in the Rye,” proved to be important for the later success of his work. Salinger knew what he was doing, he knew he was right, he knew he had to stick to his intuitive literary visions, he fought for his work and his integrity—and all of his early, and later fights, proved to be right. Salinger was a rebel, but he was a rebel with a cause—an important cause that would eventually change the worlds of publishing, writing, novels and teenage rebellion.
The cast in “Rebel in the Rye” shines throughout the film. Nicholas Hoult (he was the boy in “About a Boy”) delivers a career-defining performance as J.D. Salinger, portraying Salinger as a very real, down-to-earth, relatable—and likeable—dashing young handsome talented writer, which Salinger was in real life. But Hoult also wisely handles the more rough-edged aspects of Salinger’s younger personality—rough edges that everyone has on one level, and rough edges that only those who return from a horrific war can understand—so well, Hoult is careful to not let Salinger’s rougher edges devolve into simple caricature. Hoult maintains his composure in portraying Salinger through good times and bad times, making sure to always keep the depiction even-keeled, balanced, down-to-earth and never over-the-top—which is most welcome for once in a film biography. Salinger the person remains just that throughout “Rebel in the Rye”—a real person. Not a caricature, not some crazed depiction, but a real, caring, human person. Hoult deserves much credit for keeping his portrayal of J.D. Salinger always respectable, professional and honorable toward the real-life Salinger. Hoult’s performance is a labor of love—and that portrayal grounds the film and makes the viewer truly care about and invest in following J.D. Salinger—not just because of his literary work, but because Hoult portrays Salinger as a real, likeable person.
Kevin Spacey is, once again, excellent, as Whit Burnett, Salinger’s early sage, guide, teacher, professor, mentor and soulmate—a kindly middle-aged college professor and magazine publisher (Story magazine) who smartly recognizes Salinger’s early talent and helps propel Salinger by working with him, teaching him and even being the person who suggested to Salinger to include Salinger’s then-short-story character Holden Caulfied as the protagonist in a full-length novel. It’s quite interesting and entertaining to watch Hoult and Spacey as Salinger and Burnett tussle and bicker and spat against each other on intellectual and literary grounds, arguing about writing and characterization and inspiration and fortitude and perseverance. It’s a great teacher-student, mentor-student, writer-writer story, character and plot arch that, in many ways, proves to be the major foundation for the film. For it was really those early days when Salinger and Burnett intellectually fought that helped lead to Salinger’s later success. Their cerebral fights in the film are just wonderfully fun to watch.
An excellent supporting cast provides extra weight to balance out the varying levels of Salinger’s early life. Victor Garber is great as Salinger’s hard-edged father—one of those non-art-oriented people, non-art-oriented parents and non-art-oriented fathers who simply cannot understand artistic, literate or talent-oriented people. Poor Sol Salinger only wanted his son to follow him into the meat and cheese business. Even after J.D.—Jerome David—becomes a huge success and famous and established, Sol still doesn’t quite understand it all. Garber provides an interesting insight into a very real aspect of real life—people who simply cannot understand the arts and, more importantly, refuse to even try and understand the arts. The other message given by Garber’s portrayal is the unfortunate message of parents in general who simply do not understand their own kids—and who do not make any real, strong attempt to understand their kids. It’s sad and it’s unfortunate, but people like this exist, and, alas, even J.D. Salinger had to deal with a father who just didn’t get it. Fortunately, Salinger’s far-more understanding mother did understand young J.D., and she thankfully helped out her son, encouraged him, and even supported J.D.’s wishes to study and pursue writing as a career.
“Rebel in the Rye” is a great start to the autumn dramatic film season, and the film should be considered as an early contender for awards season. It’s that good—and it’s highly-recommended for all audiences, including younger adults and teens. If you’re going to read and enjoy “The Catcher in the Rye,” you should see the film biography of the book’s author.
Interestingly, with its World War II undercurrents and influence in the story, plot, story arch, character arches and themes and messages, “Rebel in the Rye” becomes the third major quality, important film in 2017 to be about, in full or in part, World War II. The others are “Their Finest” and “Dunkirk.” Interestingly, all three of these films are, so far in 2017, among the very best films of the year. All three are highly-recommended.
Perhaps that’s an interesting aspect to think about. Sixty-two years after the end of World War II, and with World War II veterans quickly leaving us week by week, month by month, year by year, the enduring lessons and importance of this war remain important, influential and relevant in 2017. That, of course, is an important point, because the many lessons of that war should not be forgotten, and should remain memorable today and for all generations. For, as J.D. Salinger and Holden Caulfield would wisely tell us, when you start to tell stories about what happened, you start to miss the people in those stories. But when you start to miss the people in stories, you’re also remembering the people in those stories.
Hopefully, fortunately, future generations will always remember the people involved in World War II, and hopeful, fortunately, those future generations will also always remember J.D. Salinger and Holden Caulfield.