“Film recognises neither time nor space, only the limits of man’s imagination.” – Nicholas Ray
The film that immortalised James Dean as a mythical figure in the public consciousness and continues to do so 65 years after its initial release, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause has come to be recognised as an important social document of its time. It is almost customary to judge it on the basis of its cultural significance rather than its cinematic merits because Rebel Without A Cause has its fair share of flaws. What it does manage to do really well makes up for everything that doesn’t really work, painting a compelling portrait of teenage angst and analysing the omnipresent violence as a response to this unbearable ennui.
Set in Los Angeles, the star attraction is undoubtedly James Dean’s angsty and brooding teenage character Jim Stark. Lost in a drunken delirium, Stark finds himself detained at the juvenile division of a local police station. With no regard for authority, he keeps laughing at the people around him. Ray’s film borrows its title from psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner’s 1944 book Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath and even though it never refers to it directly, it tries to pass off pop psychology as insightful commentary. The police station itself becomes a showcase for psychologically disturbed children: Judy (played by Natalie Wood), a young girl with severe daddy issues who desperately seeks the attention of her father and Plato (Sal Mineo), a troubled boy who has been brought in because he shot puppies. Officers probe the children for more information about their respective family backgrounds, making Freudian theories feel like Sunday school.
Almost all the condemnable behaviour on display stems from the main characters’ dysfunctional families. Jim’s parents keep fighting and moving around from one city to the next, unable to explain their son’s antics to society. As a result, loneliness and the feeling of being constantly uprooted has become a part of his fundamental condition. On the first day of school, he tries to befriend Judy and her boyfriend Buzz’s gang but they do not take kindly to his attempts at childish humour. The school takes them to the planetarium where the children are subjected to this bleak commentary infused with a healthy dose of nihilism: “In all the immensity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the Earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed. And man, existing alone, seems himself an episode of little consequence. That’s all. Thank you for your attention.”
However, this philosophically dense assertion is immediately subverted by what follows. Plato is the only person who extends his friendship, the rest are out to get him. Buzz and his devout followers find Jim’s car and deflate one of the tires, initiating the iconic “knife fight” scene. Jim keeps insisting that he does not want any trouble but the moment his fragile masculinity is injured by someone calling him a chicken, he decides to fight back. There’s nothing like watching a bunch of disillusioned kids indulging in caricatures of Nazi salutes and tribal conflicts just after being educated about the secrets of the universe but maybe that’s what Ray intended, a remarkably accurate chronicle of the moral vacuum in the newer generation. The kids just don’t care.
One perplexing feature of Rebel Without A Cause is how it glosses over death, never really acknowledging the meaning of being thrown out of existence. Buzz dies in a fiery car crash after driving his car off a cliff, a consequence of the glorified racing challenge/dick-measuring contest that the teenagers participated in “for honour”, but none of his staunch supporters stick around to claim responsibility. Their moral compasses cannot account for esoteric ethical values like loyalty and friendship. When Jim suddenly tries to take the moral high ground, he is stopped by his own parents. Disgusted by his father’s spineless behaviour and his mother’s deceit, he tries to go to the juvenile department at the police station. Instead of coming clean, he finds himself being pursued by Buzz’s former comrades (including Dennis Hopper – his film debut) who think that he has ratted them out. Their sense of justice is primarily ruled by an animalistic obsession with self-preservation.
Judy claims she is too numb to mourn Buzz, choosing to run away with Jim to an abandoned mansion near the Griffith Observatory. They are joined by Plato who informs them that they are being hunted by the gang. I don’t know if this was Ray’s way of executing meta-commentary on the performative nature of parent-child relationships (probably not) but that’s exactly what we see. Plato’s father had abandoned his family when he was very young and his mother was never home. Destabilised by the absence of parental figures of authority, Plato wants Jim to be his father because he is as cool as his imaginary visions of what a father should be like. Jim and Judy play wannabe parents to the needy and infantile Plato in this relatively calm interlude before violence creeps in again. It also marks Jim’s transition from the brooding teenager to the mature father figure in a blatantly irreconcilable manner.
When the gang discovers Jim’s car in front of the abandoned mansion, they go in armed with metallic chains and the intent to incapacitate. They almost get a hold of Plato but he manages to run away and pulls out the gun that he stole from his house. What happens when a child with serious psychological issues gets a hold of a lethal weapon? Well, he shoots one of the gang members and almost hits a police officer. Plato runs into the planetarium and hides in the semi-darkness of the artificially starlit dome, a symbolic womb which enables him to completely embrace his infantile coping mechanisms. Cometh the hour, cometh the man: James Dean steps into the void with his newfound assurance and convinces Plato to hand him his gun, only to take the magazine out and return the weapon to win Plato’s trust but Plato’s psyche is too volatile to process what is happening. The bright lights and the police cars overwhelm him, prompting him to make a run for it with the weapon in his hand which the police mistake for a loaded gun. They murder Plato on spot but it would have been uncharacteristic for the film to dwell on this. Everyone huddles around the misunderstood child’s dead body, grieving for a second or two before going back home while thinking about themselves.
Rebel Without A Cause threatens to destroy its own coherence with its narrative complexities but redeems itself with its censorious attitude towards its own narcissistic characters. Despite all its cinematic shortcomings, James Dean became one of the formative influences of the teenage culture of the mid-1950s and misunderstood teenagers all over the world identified with his “rebel without a cause”.