“It is the tale, not he who tells it.”
— Stephen King
In so many words, Columbia University professor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) gives this proverb to his attentive classroom during a lecture. Well, almost attentive. There sits Jerry “J.D.” Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) in the back, staring out the window until Burnett calls him on it. The two exchange verbal jibes, with Burnett getting the upper hand by verbally shredding Salinger’s college admission essay, at once recognizing the potential Salinger possesses and declaiming the unnecessary prevalence of Salinger’s voice.
This curiously odd hope-amid-failure runs like blood throughout Rebel in the Rye’s veins, much as it does in Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” Nothing Salinger is seen to attempt in the film works out perfectly; there always must be some kind of caveat or consequence attached. Writer/director Danny Strong’s script isn’t trying to kick the dog while it’s down; we’re meant to see how each of Salinger’s dreams compete with reality, never knowing which one wins. Or if either of them truly wins.
Salinger’s dreams? As a teenager: To write, be published, and to get the girl of his dreams, Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch). As a soldier staring down the barrel of World War II? To stay alive and continue writing. As a broken man with post-traumatic stress disorder? To live something resembling a human life. These divisions of his life (not much time is spent in the war, but enough to matter narratively) are broken out by color schemes, with warm tones highlighting his prewar life and cold blues adorning the loss of his humanity.
It is a one-sided affair, to be sure; Strong stays respectful of the man, not delving into his seamier side (about which Salinger’s daughter Margaret has written). But we do see little hints of Salinger being a man who wants to remake the world – especially his world – as he wants. His refusal to adhere to notes given to him by would-be publishers is taken rightly as an artist struggling to maintain his vision and stay true to his story; however, we also see him in a rage at an old friend who couldn’t get his material published. This grudge is taken with him for the rest of the film, never finding a peace between the two.
Rebel in the Rye toys with the idea of peace in Salinger’s life, but it eludes him at almost every turn. Hoult imparts a subtlety and range which escapes many, playing Salinger as a man unwilling to let anyone hurt him after he loses his soul, his love, and his spirit. As one of Salinger’s few links to the world outside his skin, Spacey is magnetic in his performance, being someone who wants to draw the best out of Salinger and do the best for him. He becomes the father figure Salinger wishes he had in place of his real father, Sol (Victor Garber), but eventually falls victim to Salinger’s increasing inability to empathize.
Salinger’s world, according to Strong, is a world without true love. Salinger is alone, a singular person, highlighted ever more so by Kramer Morgenthau’s splendid photography. We often see Salinger dwarfed against the New York City skyscrapers, or isolated in a room full of party guests. And no matter how much someone wishes to break through to him, it ends in discord and mistrust. Strong has brilliantly captured Salinger’s turbulent, uneasy life with grace and finesse, resulting in a visually arresting and personal work of art.
As a first-time feature director, Strong shows a dedicated, experienced hand, never once resorting to overhyped reality-show dramatics or furious editing. Instead, we see a relaxed, old-school approach evocative of an era where attention spans didn’t need to be catered to by making a film less about the story and more about its showmanship. It’s a vital story to be told, which Strong gives the proper due by staying out of the way while eliciting lived-in, worthy performances by his principals, living up to the quote at this article’s beginning.