Nicholas Ray's most enduring and iconic feature, Rebel Without a Cause resonates not only for its portrait of teenage alienation but its complex and warring thoughts on gender and filial roles in society. We meet Jim Stark (James Dean) not as the defiant image of youth we now see outside context but a drunken, morose boy so desperate for a stable vision of family that he curls up on a filthy street with a toy cymbal monkey, gingerly "tucking it in" with litter. Rent apart by the reversed gender roles of his parents, Jim will eventually craft his own nuclear unit out of equally disaffected friends, finding a human normalcy amid confusing and shifting family life.
Lest one assume, however, that this teen angst film is really a support of basic social conservatism, consider the complexities with which it handles its teenagers' confusion. While Ray presents characters striving toward a family of their own, he also shows that the world that grew out of such a basic social makeup is broken, so rigid it turned brittle and shattered from the force of incongruous modernity. What Rebel Without a Cause is, then, is something of an emotional "return to zero," to take a phrase from perhaps Ray's most noted admirer. By bringing its pariahs together to make their own funhouse reflection of conventional society, Ray offers a chance to begin anew, to take the basic building blocks of family, gender and normalcy to find new avenues to happiness. But even then, fate has other plans.
Ray introduces Dean with that horizontal stretch upon the ground, slyly fitting Dean's body into proper, compressed 'Scope dimensions but also showing his upturned world from the start. For a man who resents his mother's emasculating harshness and his father's weak care, Dean's first shown action is the maternal action of caring for the toy as if it were a baby, complicating the gender roles of the boy who desires more straightforward ones. After Jim is taken to the police station for his public drunkenness, Ray's camera pulls back to introduce the 16-year-old Judy (Natalie Wood), decked out in passionate red and resentful of her father's verbal abuse, and Plato (Sal Mineo), a younger boy whose effete frame, lack of father figure and all but open homosexuality cause him engage in harsh acts of violence against small animals to try to prove his manhood, to himself if no one else. It's a ragtag bunch of desperate, despairing individuals, and Jim, whether he sets out to or not, slowly brings them all together. They are all, in some respect, reflective of each other, but their individual hangups present a range of issues plaguing youth in similar ways.
In depicting how the families of these characters stifles these three, Ray casts them against the white-picket normalcy of suburbia, and to reach that point he travels back even further to show how that conformity arises. Fortunately for the sake of flow, he moves to the natural predecessor for suburban oneness, the disciplining training grounds of school. The true object of school, of course, is not to teach knowledge but to adjust and mold children to societal norms, which leads to kneejerk reaction against the different. Jim, new in town, walks over the school's insignia and is immediately accosted by a thick-necked bruiser who looks like he beats up freshman for core exercise. Yet even this thug has been conditioned to view a foot upon a brass plaque as an affront, and he reacts with almost Pavlovian learned instinct. Soon, Jim finds himself confronted by cliques, gangs of hive-mind barbarians looking to weed out individuality and weakness. Judy herself keeps with one such clique, seeking the love and comfort she no longer feels from her father, but she clearly chafes with the viciousness of the boys, especially her steady, Buzz. The critical view of the boys' primitive behavior erodes the idea that the film solely wishes to return to the realm of the old-fashioned, and Dean's more sensitive, if vulnerable, soul stands out even more compared to the masculine caricatures of these sneering, knife-wielding fiends.
Back home, we see calm suburbia barely containing a crumbling infrastructure. Judy's dad continues to lavish love on his young son but views Judy with borderline contempt now; that she's of age, he views her loving kisses as inappropriate and even slaps her, bewildering and scaring the young woman at a time of hormonal and maturing confusion. Plato, more or less abandoned to the care of his black maid, spends a great deal of his time in his mothers satiny, purple bedroom, a feminine backdrop to clash with his latent violence, hinting at the final acts of closeted self-loathing to come.
As for Jim, well, his house seems the clearest precursor for the outright madhouse that would ground Bigger Than Life. Jim's room is lit with lights covered by opaque shades, blocking out the light in the middle to force grim luminescence out the poles of each object. This casts the interiors in harsh chiaroscuro, and suddenly the Stark surname seems more than a name picked out of a hat. It also reveals Jim's simplistic view of what a family should be even as he draws ever closer to forming his own unorthodox clan, and his vibrant red jacket visually suggests his own incompatibility with his immature views. His self-destructive streak causes intense strife with his family, and Ray takes care to fill their dynamics with tense diagonals, whether it's the staircase where so much action bottlenecks or wildly tilted angles that often go Dutch before our eyes rather than start tilted.
Ray's gifts for deep-focus compositions, vivid lighting and color and transgressive staging elevate the film's core strengths beyond the dated nature of its iconography (something that isn't entirely its fault). When we get our first tastes of the main characters in the police station, Ray often keeps all three in view when he pulls back from individual interrogation. As the sympathetic officer named for Ray speaks to Judy, behind her we see Jim being led around and Plato sitting just outside the window. Likewise when the action reverses outside the cop's office, we see Judy behind the glass as Jim drunkenly offers kindness to the lonely, meek Plato. Ray visually bonds these three long before their threads truly entwine, ensuring that we do not think of their stories as separate and potentially disruptive to the narrative but three parts of a whole.
Nevertheless, they are truly brought together as a core unit after a wild scene that gets out Jim's spat with Buzz in a grisly yet unique setpiece. After a brazen knife fight in daylight, the two decide to settle their score with a game of chicken involving two junk cars, a cliff, and a test of nerves. Like the drinking contest of Wind Across the Everglades and the belt fight of Hot Blood, the chicken race stages common male rivalry in unique ways, and the grim outcome of the race somehow feels dirtier than if Jim had killed Buzz outright. The aftermath of this race, and the manner in which the adult world tries to sweep the trauma under the rug to ensure that appearances are kept up, further isolates the main characters, bringing them together as a coping mechanism.
But if the action constantly narrows in this movie the closer the three grow, the gulfs of mood around them only expand. Ray cheekily uses a planetarium as an affordable means of throwing his ideas against the cosmos: on a school trip, a curator's droning voice explains the birth and death of the universe in banal flatness, like God casually remarking upon a creation he's grown weary of explaining. And as an explosive, blinding (and, of course, red) display visualizes the death of Earth, this voice remarks upon how instantly the universe will forget this terrifying burnout and continue on as if the insignificant speck of rock never existed. Does one even need to try to connect that fatalistic view with a teenage sense of isolation and meaninglessness?
The finale returns to the planetarium, but not before Jim, Judy and Plato have hidden away in a decrepit mansion to play-act as a new family. Away from the suburbs in this shell of a house, the three start over, building from this vision of the past into something traditional and new. They even find a modicum of happiness and security together, at least until Buzz's old gang comes hunting. But the tragic finale could only take place in the planetarium, where the projection of teenage nihilism is further underscored by the awareness that the stars that already don't care for them are fake anyway, a manufactured universe of unblinking, uncaring orbs, conformist in shape and brightness as they look on with dispassion. Plato goes here in his madness, but this revelation naturally does anything but calm him down.
The inevitable horror of the climax both shreds and affirms the new family model Jim and the rest concoct. Jim, now assuming the role of the father, gives his bright red jacket to Plato, and by the end he zips the boy in it as if closing a body bag. This act of transference places Jim's immaturity into Plato even if it also means his zeal and passion might die with the boy. The dénouement attempts to set some foundations for rebuilding, but as Jim's dad belatedly displays masculine strength (ironically though an act of tender consolation), even Jim's stable relationship with Judy now carries so much trauma it seems destined solely to lock into the same sense of dead-eyed, static ennui that plagues their parents. The only other option is death, which surrounds the film (whether the deaths within it or Dean's fatal car crash before the premiere) to such an extent that it seems no glorious end at all. In a sick way, Rebel Without a Cause reaffirms the idea of family by the end, but only by wringing it of its joy and innocence. Not even the plethora of defiant lines and visualized attitude can fight this disturbing implication.