Film Review: Rebel in the Rye (2017)
Film Director: Danny Strong
Review by Belle McIntyre
This biopic about J.D. Salinger is the closest we will ever get to a film version of his iconic and most famous work The Catcher in the Rye. It was his most ambitious and arduous to produce and ironically it’s overwhelming success turned out to be a double-edged sword. The validation of his talent and the universal appeal of his central character, Holden Caulfield, engendered all of the elements of sudden success and the resultant celebrity, to bear on an artist who was apparently on emotionally shaky ground. It opened many doors for him, but equally opened too many doors to him. As he became increasingly uncomfortable with the limelight he withdrew more and more into isolation until his final move to the countryside of New Hampshire, where he refuses interviews, visitors and ultimately stops publishing. There he remains for the rest of his life.
The reason we are not getting the film version of Catcher in the Rye is what this film is about. So, we must settle for the backstory about the creation of an imminently more filmable book. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) became one of America’s notable literary contrarians. We watch him evolve from a cocky, handsome young man with attitude, huge aspirations, very few accomplishments, and minimal dedication to his craft. He seemed to be dreaming up this future for himself as an antidote to the mundanity of his reality, as the son of a prosperous Jewish self-made businessman in the food business. As a mediocre student, his father, who intends for him to take over the business, is reluctant to honor his request to go to graduate school to study writing. But his mother (Hope Davis) goes to the mat for her son and causes it to happen.
At Columbia, Salinger is fortunate enough to take a class with the legendary Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), who is tough on the arrogant young man but is not blind to his potential and becomes his mentor. Burnett had his own talent for spotting and shaping talent in young writers, who included Charles Bukowski, John Cheever, Joseph Heller, Tennessee Williams and Richard Wright, all of whom were introduced on the pages of Story, the small literary magazine which he and his wife had begun publishing in 1931. It is Burnett’s influence which causes him to get serious about the craft of writing and encourages him through the daunting process of submissions and rejections of work. He has written a number of short stories, one of which introduces the character of Holden Caulfield. Burnett believes he could be expanded to a novel. But Salinger is reluctant.
When the US joins World War II and Salinger enlists, the parting words from Burnett are for him to work on Caulfield in the trenches and to make him his best friend. Salinger goes through hell in the war and suffers severe PTSD. During his rehabilitation he finally takes the advice of Burnett and attempts to invoke Caulfield as a part of his healing process, and he starts writing. He also comes across a guru from whom he learns meditation and eastern spirituality. These two events are both pivotal in opposite directions.
The unexpected runaway success of Catcher in the Rye and the worldly demands which were put upon him happening simultaneously as he was becoming more involved in a more other worldly way of being, rather than creating balance, created internal discord over time. He moved his war bride and himself away from the adulation and distractions to a farm on many acres of woodland in Cornish, New Hampshire, where he dedicated himself full time to writing. Oddly, he refused to publish most of it. He refused interviews and cut himself off almost entirely from civilization. And there he died decades later.
It is a rather sorrowful story. He seemed unconsoled by his wife or his children, who he largely regarded as obstacles to his writing. The solitude did not seem to bring happiness. The guru did not seem to stress forgiveness or radical gratitude. It took years for him to forgive Burnett for being financially unable to publish his collected stories. And the only person to whom he showed appreciation seems to be his mother. I suppose there is no new ground broken here about what self-centered, arrogant and demanding people male writers are.
The film is beautifully shot with skillful art direction, sets and costumes. It all feels very authentic. Zoey Deutsch as Oona O’Neill is as alluring as she was reported to be, and understandably catnip to the young Salinger. Sarah Paulson plays Dorothy Olding, his long-standing literary agent, who ably adapts to his Mercurial moods and temperament. As much as one might lament his self-imposed exile, it has only enhanced his allure.