“Life” is told through the lens of Dennis Stock, a struggling photographer played by Pattinson. He’s a New Yorker slumming it in Los Angeles red carpets with dreams of returning to the Big Apple to do more important work.
James Dean (Dane DeHaan) is on the cusp of stardom, just months away from the release of “East of Eden.” After a chance meeting with Dean the photographer is convinced the actor is the perfect subject. The two have an undeniable bond but Dean is hesitant, leery of exposing himself to the publicity machine. “I lose myself in my roles,” he says. “I don’t want to lose myself in all this other stuff.”
The actor reluctantly agrees to allow Stock to photograph him for LIFE in the days leading up to the New York premier of “East of Eden.” When Stock’s early attempts to capture the actor’s “purity and awkwardness” don’t yield anything usable the two leave for Dean’s Indiana hometown. The resulting photos, coupled with a throwaway shot taken in Times Square, become a document of Dean’s last few moments of real life before he was overwhelmed by fame.
“Life” is a deliberate, thoughtful movie that details the heady days just before stardom consumed Dean. The story is uneventful, this is really a character study about two young men—in real life Stock was 26, Dean 23 years old—who find a way to define their relationship outside the parameters of photographer and subject. It’s about building trust, it’s about the connection between the press and the stars they cover and it’s about the bond between the photographer and the photographed. “Photography is a good way of saying, ‘I’ve been here, you’ve been here,’ says Stock.
It’s no surprise that “Life” was directed by Anton Corbijn, a photog-tiurned-filmmaker best known for taking iconic pictures of rock bands like U2 and Joy Division. He deeply understands the give-and-take necessary to capture interesting images and his experience bleeds into “Life’s” story.
It’s an interesting portrait of an exciting time. It’s too bad then, that there isn’t more to it. When Stock isn’t peering through his viewfinder the movie tends to fall flat.
DeHaan’s portrayal of Dean suggests the actor may have been an insufferable prat, self-absorbed and yet hiding behind a shroud of cigarette smoke. He mumbles his way through the first half of the film and doesn’t really transcend caricature until the story moves to his Indiana hometown. Its there Dean becomes a person and DeHaan seems to let go of the shackles of playing a legend. It is there the script allows him to be a person and not “the symbol of a new movement.” It is there we begin to understand why Dean is in no rush to let the public get to know him. Before that he is a ready-made rebel and not a particularly interesting one.
Pattinson continues his streak of taking on challenging roles that distance him from the heartthrob status that marked his “Twilight” years. As Stock he takes a backseat to DeHaan’s Dean, but makes a impression with a much less showier role.
In the end “Life” isn’t so much about Stock or Dean but about those moments captured on film that become legend.