Most high schoolers (or maybe college these days) learn two things about J.D. Salinger. First, the main character from his first novel, Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield connected to a generation of disaffected youth giving them a jaded but truthful voice for their woes and second, J. D. Salinger was notoriously reclusive until the day he died.
I’ve read Catcher in the Rye twice but it never felt like Caulfield spoke for me or to me. I’m a bookish kind of girl so its rare that I cannot connect with the material on some level but Salinger didn’t have nearly the impact on me as Alice Walker or James Baldwin. I always put it down to his truth not speaking to my life experiences. Beyond knowing that Salinger’s work after Catcher slowly – and to most inexplicably – turned towards the more spiritually introspective; I knew nothing much about the man. He just seemed like one more author who achieved critical acclaim and then eventually abandon the audience that got him there.
After watching Rebel in the Rye I have a whole new appreciation for J.D. Salinger, the man, and his most influential work the Catcher in the Rye.
Synopsis: Set in New York City starting in 1939, Rebel in the Rye follows a young Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) as he beings a (toxic as hell) a love affair with famed socialite Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), grapples with his literary voice, fights on the front-lines of World War II and his struggle to re-acclimate to life upon his return home. All these encounters and trials ultimately shaped what becomes his masterpiece, “The Catcher in the Rye.” The seemingly overnight fame (and notoriety) the book brings intensifies his personal issues and leads him to withdraw from the public eye for the rest of his life.
That description tells you everything and nothing about why Rebel in the Rye is worth watching. Writer/Director Danny Strong, brings the world of mid-century New Your to life-giving his story a backdrop that feels like a character all on its own. The costuming and carefully selected locations carefully build the bubble in which Salinger’s New York pulses with life adding movement and setting a tone that matches the quick pace of a Salinger short story. Using select passages from actual Salinger short stories to aid in demonstrating both his progress towards finding his literary voice, and himself, Strong gives deeper meaning to each bit of dialogue between the characters as it occurs on-screen. Rebel in the Rye feels like improvisational jazz brought to life.
Like many young white men of his station J. D. Salinger lived at home and had the benefit of a time and family money – even if he didn’t have his father’s support – to find his way in the world while shielded from the consequences many of the rest of the city (re: world) wold suffer for such aimlessness. He was a cynical, smart-mouthed, opinionated, skirt-chasing college drop out. I won’t lie, had the movie started here, I would’ve checked out. But Strong opens his film showing a clearly disturbed Salinger mentally composing a letter declaring Holden Caulfield is dead before flashing back to a much younger, and clearly mentally sound – if snarky – Salinger in a club dancing. It was a smart story decision because it captured my interest and made me more than willing to take the ride to discover how such a brash, unapologetic, and arrogant young man ended up a broken and dejected version of himself. As the remainder of his story unfolds and you see what really motivates and moves him, you slowly begin to invest in the story and the man.
Drawing on material from Kenneth Slawenski’s biography “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” Strong uses humor and Salinger’s own quick-fire witticisms to bring the hallmark moments and formative experiences in the author’s past to rich life on-screen. One particularly memorable scene early in the film showcases a far less arrogant Salinger after receiving a never-ending-stream of rejections (I can relate, I’ve made more than one beach bonfire with “thanks but no letters”) confronting by his teacher Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) and asked would he be willing to write for the rest of his life without ever getting anything back. Not only does this become a driving theme in Salinger’s life, it changes the meaning of many of the film’s seminal moments because that questions quietly echos through the remainder of the film…and his life.
This movie did what reading his writing didn’t, gave me connection and insight into J.D. Salinger and the trials and tribulations that made him capable of changing the landscape of American literature while also navigating a heart-wrenching path towards finding some kind of lasting peace. J.D. Salinger’s work may not have had much impact on me but learning more about his life certainly did.
This movie visually riffles through the highs, lows, that eventually drove J.D. Salinger into seclusion to create an even-handed (Salinger was not a very nice man), evenly paced, insightful, fascinating tale. This cast of veterans and newbies blended into the time period and their roles expertly reflecting the attitudes of the time, their class, and the mid-century literary scene so well that when juxtaposed with Salinger’s experience it creates a powerful statement and moving portrayal of a deeply troubled man.