East of Eden, a beautiful portrait of a young man, Cal Trask (James Dean), who for all of his life have been perceived as the rejected and disappointed son, contrasted by the righteousness and purity of his older brother, Aron (Richard Davalos), whose presence models after their father, Adam (Raymond Massey). It is this isolation that Cal feels in this familial dynamic that director Elia Kazan places its focus on, as it introduces itself with an air of mystery, watching Dean’s character express in this unspoken, animalistic form, for reasons that it has yet to reveal. Thus Kazan initially places our outlook closely to those who observe and judge Cal, viewing him as a random and hateful individual, driven by his child-like impulses.
The beauty of East of Eden would come as the film progresses along, as the source of Cal’s nature is slowly revealed and this character begins to express himself that provides the audience more pieces in solving this human enigma. From this point, the audience’s perspective begins to shift towards Cal’s, as we become empathetic to his angsts and needs, we endorse his need to search for his mother and to thrive from his bean business, as we want him to be relieved of this internal pain that he suffers every day, and more importantly, we see the genuineness in his actions, the affection that he craves and sorely deserves, and the sense of approval that he requires from his family.
It brings forth a revelatory performance from Dean, and Kazan utilises every opportunity to capture this with his cameras. Dean seems to need little aid from Kazan’s direction to truly embody this tortured soul, as each moment of emotional expression is attended to with expository resistance and leaned towards visual motivation and environmental interaction, one that still attends to the melodramatic drive of the film, but powerfully earned with every given moment. It is without a doubt a film that caters to his sole performance, outshining his cast despite their relevance to the film.
Sure I found the film’s final moments to be slightly ridiculous, as Cal’s father miraculously becomes spontaneously better in order to speak, but the heart is palpable and the performance by Dean and Massey carries the scene through, a wonderful closer that does not find them in complete full circle, but rather an indicator of a new start for their lives.
East of Eden is a dramatically absorbing and enthralling film, acting as the cornerstone of his short career, the starring debut that other actors would only dream of, and an opportunity for any director to be involved in. Kazan allowed its intentions to be set on Dean’s presence, and with it, the entire film benefits; it was this that allowed East of Eden to stand the test of time.