Google ‘James Dean image’ and the first result will be Dennis Stock’s photo of the actor, cigarette hanging from his mouth, collars turned up, walking through Times Square in the rain.
Next to that there will be his images of Dean at his home farm in Indiana, a world away from the glitz of Hollywood. It’s these photos, released not long before his untimely death, that helped cement the actor’s iconic status. So who better than to dramatise the story in and around the pictures than former photographer Anton Corbijn?
The material is well suited to the director for other reasons too. James Dean dies within eighteen months of the end credits here and Corbijn seems like have a penchant for tragedy: his previous three films have ended with death (Control), death (The American), and bitter, soul-destroying, gut-wrenching disappointment/spiritual death (A Most Wanted Man). But Life oddly ends on a positive if bittersweet note. Maybe the Dutch director is at his best when being morose because this is his weakest to date.
It’s 1955 and Elia Kazan’s East of Eden has just wrapped. At a Nicholas Ray party, still-unknown actor James Dean (DeHaan) hangs out by pool bar, alone. No one has seen the performance yet and no one is aware how special the twenty-two-year-old is, least of all struggling photographer Dennis Stock (Pattinson), floating about the party looking for an interesting subject and hopefully his next gig. Like Dean, he has ambitions to do something different in his field and not be just “one of those red carpet gorillas.” After witnessing Dean’s performance at an Eden preview, Stock approaches him with an idea for a photo essay for the titular magazine: “No studio crap, no lighting.” However, Dean proves elusive and there is pressure from his agent (Edgerton) to produce the work.
After the unsure turn as Harry Osborn, DeHaan’s performance is a strong if a little too aware one; his sleepy, disinterested delivery makes an impressive Dean impression but he’s hampered with a hollow character. Perhaps if Luke Davies’ (Candy) script touched on Dean’s sexual identity then maybe DeHaan would have more to work with. And there’s never a sense of Dean’s love for film or the craft; “I just want to do good acting,” is the only overture to performing.
It’s Pattinson that’s the secret weapon, a lived-in performance sneaking in under the radar but he’s hampered too by an underwritten role. There are attempts to colour in his background with an ex-wife (Julia Schnabel) pressuring him help out with their son (Jack Fulton) but this doesn’t give him enough. Davies and Corbijn are at pains to form a symbiotic relationship – both are trying to break from the old, both get sick at the same time – but there’s no feeling of brotherhood, a two-against-the-world bond.
Life has some fun with its pop culture references and there is a tingle when Stock begins to snap Dean in those famous unglamorous poses but the film is always in danger of underplaying itself into a stupor – there’s not enough fire in its belly to keep things chugging despite Ben Kingsley showing up as the whip-cracking studio mogul Jack Warner.
Good performances, not so good film.