Rumble Fish: Rebels and Causes

One outcast seeking the reputation and respect of his older brother, while the latter tries to live his down and enjoy a peaceful life outside all of the violence and glorification of the street life, Rumble Fish’s story of the contrast between two brothers, and the completely separate philosophies they represent is some of the best work Francis Ford Coppola has ever done. If the 70’s was Coppola’s golden period with one masterpiece after another, and with some of the most successful films he ever made, the 1980’s saw him experimenting with new genres, new subject matter and new techniques: projects like One From the Heart, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, and while they did perform well at all financially, they saw the director venturing into new territory; the result wasn’t exactly always a new Apocalypse Now, but in the case of this film, the result is as memorable and captivating as any of Coppola’s signature titles.

The film’s story revolves around the character of Rusty James, played impeccably by Matt Dillon, a rebel without a cause, who wants nothing more than to live up the reputation of his older brother, nicknamed The Motorcycle Boy, played by Mickey Rourke, who was once a much-feared icon in the streets. The story constantly contrasts their characters: while Rusty James represents conformity, and even what you would call a touch of innocence, his dreams are simple and superficial, untarnished by any mature notion, even his thirst for violence and fights is childlike, and is more pretentious heroism than true belief, his brother is symbolic of a certain melancholic detachment, like someone who has seen everything in the world and finds no interest in anything any longer, with a touch of wisdom and aloofness; Coppola told Rourke to play the character like Albert Camus, cool with a cigarette between his lips.

The film’s cinematography feels like a cross-over between a classic 1950’s film noir and an early Jim Jarmusch picture, stark black-and-white compositions, unusual angles, dark alleys, rich blacks, and concentrated sources of lighting; Rumble Fish’s camera work is all of the intricate symbolism of German Expressionism modernized for a 1980’s setting. Coppola, alongside cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, utilize a wide range of impressive techniques to bring the story to life, from having only the fish the film is named after be in color, to time-lapse photography to show the clouds in the sky moving much faster and symbolize the quickness of time’s passing, Rumble Fish is as impressive technically as it is narratively. One particular sequence where the film shines is the fight sequence in the beginning, Coppola got a professional ballet choreographer to design it, and the result was just as theatrically exaggerated as you’d expect it to be: a constant fast flashing of one image after another, beautifully orchestrated movement and unusual camera angles make this scene one of the most memorable of the entire film.

Rumble Fish at its core is about two characters, one has too much time on his hand, and the other feels like he has none: youthful abandonment and gloomy maturity. The score, which is almost entirely percussive, beautifully captures this theme; it feels like a literal clock ticking away. The film is named after fish that attempt to kill each other when they’re not separated, symbolizing the gang life that the film portrays; The Motorcycle Boy ultimately sacrifices everything to free the fish, and when they are free, they no longer want to kill each other, they just swim away peacefully. “If you’re going to lead people, you have to have somewhere to go” he says to his younger brother: with being idolized comes a great responsibility, one even he no longer wants. A rebel without a cause inspires more pity than fear, and Dillon’s incredible performance, while it captures the essence of youthful rebelliousness, also shows its vanity.

I saw Rumble Fish for the first time ages ago, and when it was over, and the iconic tune “Don’t Box Me In” played, I knew I had just witnessed an instant all-time favorite, a beautiful, complex tale of youth and its maturity, or even destruction, and a film that is as gripping as it is gorgeous.


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