If Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause is about anything, it’s about nothing: the emptiness that exists in our lives. The space where something should be, or the place where truly nothing is. A vacuum.
The plot of Rebel follows thee high-schoolers over a 24-hour period. Two embody outsider archetypes, the third falls in and becomes outsider by extension. Jim Stark (James Dean) is the new kid in town. Plato (Sal Mineo) is a bully punching-bag who develops a crush on Jim. Judy (Natalie Wood) catches Jim’s eye. So the impromptu familial unit of the film is an awkward triumvirate, where the sexual tension is never openly addressed. This is a sort of emptiness within the group itself. Plato’s feelings toward Jim are never fully addressed, and there is no strong sense that Plato is bothered by Judy’s presence. Film codes at the time prevented the theme from being explored, but it’s in keeping with what a real life gay youth in 1955 would’ve faced.
These three are unified in their frustrating lack of a father figure. This is the central emptiness of the film. Judy’s Dad is too hard. She longs for a simpler time of being ‘daddy’s little girl’. When she goes in for a kiss at the dinner table dear-old-dad slaps her across the face, repulsed. Jim’s dad is too soft. The burdened teen (who looks 28) pleads with his dad to stand up to his domineering mother. We are shown the father wearing an apron, down on his knees, in full degraded housewife mode. Jim is absolutely disgusted. Plato’s dad simply isn’t there. He’s so absent, Plato fabricates stories about his death. “Aw, what’s the difference? He might as well be dead anyway,” he moans.
They are not yet a merry band during a field trip to the planetarium. The narrator of the presentation walks the audience through the end of the world: “Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of man seem trivial and naive indeed. And man, existing alone, seems to be an episode of little consequence.” This sequence is clearly more for us than it is the room of bored teens. This ominous talk places the lack of meaning the teens feel in the grand context of the mightiest vacuum of them all: outer space.
The most iconic, spoofed-ad-nauseum sequence is the game of chicken near the middle of the movie. It culminates in Judy’s current boyfriend sailing over a cliff in a stolen car. So the first death is in fact someone plunging into an abyss.
After this incident the trio find themselves on the run from the law, a street gang and parents. [See also: “Is your name Michael Diamond” “Nah, mine’s Clarence”] They end up in an abandoned mansion. A house devoid of a family. Unsurprisingly, the gang take to the space immediately. When the gang members arrive they chase Plato in and out of an abandoned pool. This is the most blatant picture of how the youths envision their world: desperately trying to survive in a vacant space that should be filled to support them.
When the police arrive the action spills back toward the planetarium, one of many choices that make clear the characters can’t escape their cyclical world. Plato, who ABSOFUCKINGLUTELY LOOSES HIS SHIT with little explanation (not one of the films stronger moments), ends up in standoff with police. In a panic, he flashes an unloaded gun and is shot dead. An instrument built to kill others promptly kills the operator once empty, a total inversion that illustrates just how costly the vacuum can be.