Salinger is a fascinating, frustrating, and more than a little creepy film that digs and digs and digs to find the dark secrets behind the persona of a famously reclusive modern writer who happened to write an iconic 20th century American novel. For two hours, the film stalks its subject with obsession, piecing together a story that the man himself wouldn’t tell. Though it has the guise of a straight-on documentary, it comes across as sensational and stalker-ish… especially when I came to the realization, “Wait a minute, the whole time this film was being made, J.D. Salinger was still alive???”
The film boasts over 150 interviews with friends, wives, and lovers of Salinger, as well as peers like Tom Wolfe and Gore Vidal, plus scholars, biographers, and even actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen. What is it about J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and the character of Holden Caulfield that has held such sway over American pop culture for over half a century? Alas, the film doesn’t go that much into the iconic book. The more attention-grabbing news bites, like the fact that three assassins or would-be assassins (most notably, Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon, and John Hinkley, who shot President Reagan) claimed that they were influenced by Catcher to kill, is also a bit rushed (especially considering these were emphasized in the trailer). No mention of the book being banned on and off over decades even comes up until the South Park clips in the closing credits.
Instead, the film doggedly sets out to create a portrayal of a man that famously dropped off the media grid in the 1960’s (though he could still be found living his life in small-town New Hampshire). The film, made over 9 years, has the disturbing quality of being in the present tense until the closing credits (Salinger died in 2010). Every corner is mined, with some of the more interesting interviews from dogged fans who drove across the country to stand at Salinger’s driveway, and ex-love interests Joyce Maynard and Jean Miller, who were teenagers when they sparked the interest of the much older Salinger.
But there comes the point where you realize that most of the people interviewed got dumped, either as friends or lovers, decades ago. Imagine someone making a documentary about YOU, where everyone featured, knew you from years and years in your past. That is the vibe I got from this film. If I had fans like this filmmaker, heck, I’d go live in the woods of New Hampshire as well.