Retrospective Film Review: Rain Man

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(Rain Man, Barry Levinson, USA, 1988, 133 minutes)

Doctor: ‘Are you autistic Ray?’

Raymond Babbitt: ‘I don’t think so. Definitely not’

The performances of Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman mark ‘Rain Man’ as a captivating, thought provoking, engaging classic.  The film won Oscars for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay; awards that were unachievable without the unique pairing of this talented couple.

The audience first meet Charlie Babbitt – a scheming, sneering automobile hustler who is desperate to close on a deal. On the same day he is informed of his father’s death. Charlie is not shocked to find out he has been cut from the $3 million fortune and is left a vintage Buick convertible – the very vehicle that destroyed their father, son relationship. In his teenage years Charlie took the car without permission, his father reported it stolen and Charlie ended up in prison for two days.  Charlie uses his charm to find out that the inheritance has been placed in a trust fund to a concealed beneficiary – his older brother Raymond, Dustin Hoffman, who he never knew existed. Raymond has long been institutionalised because he is an autistic savant. Charlie kidnaps his brother, hoping to gain his half of the $3 million ‘prize’. Raymond’s fear of flying means the two brothers must take a cross-country road trip. Charlie realises his imaginary childhood friend the ‘Rain Man’ was his mispronunciation of his brother’s name ‘Raymond’. Charlie goes on an emotional journey attempting to connect with his brother. He falls in love while attempting to accept and understand Raymond for who he is.

Retrospectively you watch the film and appreciate the attention to detail that is given to the portrayal of Raymond’s autistic condition. Twenty two years ago ‘Rain Man’ shed a lot of light on a condition that many doctors were still trying to understand; in 2010 there is a greater awareness and knowledge of autism and watching the film from a contemporary view point allows you to realise how far society has come in accepting and talking about such conditions.

From delving into the DVD’s special features you learn that Hoffman worked with autistic men and their families to come close to understanding the complexities of the condition. Director Barry Levinson tells us he wanted to allow the two characters to be stuck with one another to portray Charlie’s transition from a self-centred businessman caught up with his own issues, to a caring, thoughtful brother.

Hoffman highlights the dilemma and difficulty of autism through Raymond’s emotional outbursts. Raymond likes routine, there is a pattern in the way he eats, sleeps, talks and walks. He typically has his bed by the window, he drinks orange soda with a straw and religiously sticks to a television schedule. If there is a minute delay Raymond starts to panic. This difficult scenario tires and frustrates Charlie yet Raymond does not intentionally aggravate him. Despite being a younger brother, Cruise conveys Charlie as a distant parent to Raymond; serving to represent the distant relationship he had with his deceased father. Charlie becomes familiar with his brother’s bizarre routine making sure everything is in place to avoid disruption.

Every scene highlights the differences and similarities between these two men.  When they drive through Las Vegas Charlie takes in all the lights, whereas Raymond doesn’t look up once and remains focused on his TV Watchman – in a world of his own. When a waitress drops toothpicks on the floor in a diner Raymond’s ability to solve mathematical calculations within seconds is revealed.  Raymond mutters ‘82, 82, 82 – 246’ – the amount of toothpicks shattered across the floor. Charlie is amazed by this but again Raymond doesn’t bat an eyelid.

The dance scene shatters any pleasant atmosphere that existed and highlights how hard Raymond’s condition is to comprehend. After teaching Raymond how to dance Charlie tries to hug him – the reaction disturbs and distresses both Charlie and the audience as Raymond’s horrific scream is painful to hear.

It is hard to accept that Raymond’s condition means he is exactly the same guy in the last frame as he is in the first frame. There is a joint desperation, between Charlie and the audience, to prove he has helped his brother develop over the past six days. He soon realises this is not the case when Raymond answers ‘Yeah’ to ‘Do you want to stay with your brother?’ and ‘Do you want to go back to Wallbrook?’ The emotional distress and upset that Charlie is feeling is felt by the audience when he touches Ray’s forehead and says ‘I like having you for my older brother’. He has come to accept that Raymond cannot understand certain parts of reality.

The ending is more tragic every time I watch ‘Rain Man’. The cliché would be for Raymond to wave goodbye to Charlie but he remains fixated on his TV Watchman. Charlie hides behind his sunglasses, the audience cannot see his expression but no he is caught up in a blurring of dissatisfaction and great adoration for his brother the ‘Rain Man’. There is no happy ending. You continue to question whether Raymond would have been able to function in the ‘real’ world.

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