Life (2015)

Life (2015)
  • Time: 111 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama
  • Director: Anton Corbijn
  • Cast: Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan, Ben Kingsley, Peter Lucas, Joel Edgerton


A snapshot in time-the film chronicles the story behind the 1955 LIFE magazine photo thread by Dennis Stock of then-rising star, James Dean, and gives us an inside look at some of Hollywood’s most iconic images and into the life of a gifted, but troubled man.

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  • When ambitious shutterbug Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) first met James Dean (Dane DeHaan) in 1955, Dean was not yet James Dean. The young actor was still an unknown commodity, whose girlfriend Pier Angeli (Alessandra Mastronardi) was the far bigger star, whose East of Eden was still to be released, and whose casting in Rebel Without a Cause was still to be guaranteed.

    Dean arrived on the heels of Marlon Brando, both country boys (Dean was from Indiana, Brando hailed from Nebraska) who had come to the bright lights of New York and Hollywood and not only introduced a new breed of masculinity to the screen but also popularised the Method style of acting. Elia Kazan, who directed Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, had been searching for “a Brando” during the casting process for East of Eden and had found it in Dean. The film’s studio, Warner Brothers, and its head Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley) were keen on promoting Dean as the next big thing, though Warner was not too enamoured of Dean’s reluctance to be a product of the publicity machine.

    In fact, Dean displayed apprehension at his burgeoning celebrity. As he says to Stock, he’s not sure if he wants to speed up the process of people getting to know him. Nevertheless, whether fearful of Warner’s wrath, eventually persuaded by the persistent Stock, interested in understanding the creation of his public image, or moved by mere whim, Dean agrees to be the subject of Stock’s photo essay, which would be published in Life magazine two days before East of Eden’s New York premiere. The photographs, especially the image of Dean walking down a rain-slicked Times Square with a cigarette in his mouth, would be iconic, immortalising his cool and cementing his legend. (Dean would die in a car crash seven months after the photographs were published.)

    DeHaan doesn’t necessarily resemble Dean, though that’s neither here nor there. He adopts a drowsy mumble and a borderline narcoleptic demeanour that strikes one as more Andy Warhol than James Dean. The performance is a mite too studied for its own good, though it’s interesting to watch DeHaan somewhat abandon the mannerisms once Dean and Stock journey to the actor’s childhood home. These Indiana scenes are where DeHaan truly shines, exposing Dean’s shyness and vulnerability. Here is also when the symbiosis between Dean and Stock coalesces – Dean is the most unguarded, heartfelt and relaxed in his hometown, but those invasive clicks of Stock’s camera remind viewers – and Dean – that this may be just an assignment for Stock.

    Pattinson, for the most part, does what he can to turn a character written as a blank slate into something that approximates a human being. There are flashes of a parasitic nature in his eyes and, in theory, Stock could be a cinematic soulmate to Nightcrawler’s overly opportunistic Louis Bloom. Yet that dynamic is never fully explored in Luke Davies’ screenplay, nor is the homosexual undercurrent between the two men. Either element would have lent a deeper intrigue to their relationship.

    Director Anton Corbijn could not be a more perfect fit for this subject matter, having helmed Control, a piercing portrait of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, and having been a highly successful photographer himself before transitioning to filmmaking. (Corbijn cameos as one of the red carpet photographers.) Unsurprisingly, the look of the film is faultless but there is little to no depth in the proceedings. Life is emotionally bloodless and laboured. One never quite comprehends the motivations that drive either man, much less what fed this uneasy but mutually beneficial coupling.

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