Photo | Alison Cohen Rosa (courtesy of IFC Films)

A potentially compelling biopic that ultimately misses the mark


The first feature length film by writer-director Danny Strong, Rebel in the Rye has potential that it ultimately fails to reach. This biopic examines the life of author J.D. Salinger and the events surrounding his creation of the classic 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye.

Despite a sufficiently lengthy runtime, Rebel in the Rye offers a simplistic view of J.D. Salinger’s life, focussing only on the notable events of his career. Rather than showing the evolution of Salinger as a writer and the development of his character, Strong displays his version of Salinger, called Jerry (Nicholas Hoult), as fully formed. The viewer must accept Jerry as a genius author from the beginning, before he attends university or is published. By creating a character who does no wrong, and whose prose is nearly perfect, Strong’s film loses any of the depth or complexity it might have had working with the life story of a complicated artist. The film would be formulaic if not for its frustrating sequencing.

Central to Rebel’s failure is this sequencing. For the first half of the movie, the temporal order shows Salinger in four different time periods. Non-chronological temporal sequencing can be done well in other films, but when time shifts in Rebel, the change is sudden and interrupts the narrative flow. At one moment, Salinger is a patient in a mental hospital, the music is slow but swelling as he tries to remember how to write. Then, in one hard cut, Salinger is suddenly in a concert hall, the music is Bebop, and he’s perfectly fine trying to pick up girls. The abruptness of this switch is enough to make someone nauseous. With such hard cuts and frequent changes in score, Rebel presents a narrative that is challenging to follow.

The final failure of Rebel is the ending. It’s no secret that after his success with The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger struggled with fame, becoming intensely private before isolating himself almost entirely from the world. However, Strong’s film struggles to define the tone of Salinger’s decision. Strong’s Salinger claims that by doing this he will find happiness. A quest for happiness would make sense if it were clear that this is what his character is searching for throughout the movie—but it’s not. The moments that lead to Jerry’s self-imposed exile are treated as positive by the film. The scenes commend his isolation as a natural conclusion to the film, with half of the film focused on Jerry getting published, not on achieving peace. These final scenes, when considered as actual events in somebody’s life, would make more sense as tragedy. Salinger’s refusal to publish and his abandonment of the world, including his family, are a loss.

In the end, Strong has written and directed a predictable biopic which romanticises a conflicted author into a figure who is justified in any action he takes. Strong’s story offers nothing new for a viewer—no insight that a quick Wikipedia search couldn’t satisfy. Despite a cast of well known actors and a wealth of material from the author’s life to work with, Rebel is not enjoyable enough to be worth the price of admission.