REBEL IN THE EYE is an American biographical drama film based on the author of the famous ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. It is directed and written by Danny Strong, who adapted the book J. D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski. Director Strong bought the book rights with his own money which must mean that the book really fascinated him.
A film about successful creative writing appeals to many particularly film reviewers who could learn a thing or two about their writing. The spill on voice in writing illustrated by a passage read by Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) in a William Faulkner novel is especially engaging. He reads a passage in a monotonous tone to illustrate the fact that it is the incidents will make the writing and not the tone. But if the author’s voice or impression is added, that would be inspiring. Unless the voice comes across as pompous instead of sincere.
The film follows the life of Jerome Salinger (Nicholas Hoult). He attends writing at Columbia University where Professor White Burnett grinds him to be a successful writer. His devastating experiences during the War watching many die during the D-Day beach landing earn him the maturity that finally gets the fame he seeks with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ but not after suffering mentally. He is aided by an Indian Swami (Bernard White).
The message in the film is quite obvious – the importance of truth in writing. Salinger refuses to compromise changing his story to the notes of the New York Times in order to be published.
Besides the story of J.D. Salinger as a writer from budding writer to published author, the film has several major subplots that undermine the film’s goal. One is the relationship between Salinger and his mentor Whit Burnett. The second is the failed love affair between Salinger and Oona (Zooey Deutch). All the action takes place during World War 2 with Salinger himself going off to fight in the war. The segments with the Indian Swami are more laughable than credible,
In Strong’s attempt to put his voice into his film, he gets too obvious. One example (too in-your-face metaphor) is the blurred image of Salinger’s face as seen through the glass of his mother in the homecoming dinner. This also comes across as an attempt to be too pompous instead of sincere – advice that he should have taken himself from the film.
For a film that stresses about voice in a story, Strong falls again into the trap of not following his own advice. He resorts in too many familiar filming formats. One is the over-use of voiceover. Another is obvious at the start of the film when a scene is shown and then the film flashes back to years earlier (in this case 6 years) to the events that precede the scene. The over use of music, as if to force the audience to feel a certain way (Indian music during the Swami advice segments and a musical interlude when Salinger gets published) is yet another. Every character in the film speaks the same way – with sarcasm and with anger.
REBEL IN THE EYE ends up a flawed biography in which director Strong commits all the mistakes the writing professor Burnett in the script warns Salinger never to make.