Rain Man: The Journey of Charlie Babbitt
The title of the film Rain Man is a childish corruption of the name of Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond; however, the crux of the film is how Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) emotionally matures and evolves through his association with his big brother Raymond. Charlie is a fast-talking, emotionally vacuous sports car importer. Estranged from his wealthy father and teetering on financial failure—Charlie is unable to emotionally connect with anyone, including girlfriend Susanna. Upon the death of his father, Charlie learns for the first time of his brother Raymond—an institutionalized autistic savant who is the beneficiary of their father’s fortune.
In the film, Charlie ‘kidnaps’ Raymond in order to gain half of his father’s estate—but after a trying cross-country journey, Charlie grows emotionally and feels as if he’s made a connection with the fragile and isolated Raymond. Back home in Los Angeles, Charlie wants to take care of Raymond—but realizes he really cannot do so; however, Charlie has discovered love through Raymond and intends to visit and remain close to him.
About Autism: Raymond’s Condition
The Autism Research Institute, the ‘home’ institute of Dr. Bernard Rimland—advisor to the film, states:
Autism is a severe developmental disorder that begins at birth or within the first two-
and-a-half years of life. Most autistic children are perfectly normal in appearance, but
spend their time engaged in puzzling and disturbing behaviors which are markedly
different from those of typical children. Less severe cases may be diagnosed with
Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) or with Asperger’s Syndrome (these
children typically have normal speech, but they have many “autistic” social and
Raymond’s diagnosis also includes the ‘savant’ factor, which Dr. Darold Treffert
… a rare, but extraordinary, condition in which persons with serious mental
disabilities, including autistic disorder, have some ‘island of genius’ that stands in
marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap. In fact as many as one in ten
autistic persons have such remarkable abilities in varying degrees, although savant
syndrome occurs in other developmental disabilities or CNS injury or disease as well.
While J. Landon Down included 10 such cases in his original description of this
interesting circumstance in 1887, and Kanner included some such cases in his first
accounts of early infantile autism in 1943, the 1989 movie Rain Man made “autistic
savant” a household term.
In order to examine Rain Man, I used Burke’s “cluster” method of criticism. In this approach, the analyst identifies key elements of an artifact (based on frequency and/or intensity of use) and finds the elements that cluster around them. These elements can be connected to their key sources via an important relationship, i.e. proximity, conjunction or cause and effect. Next, significant points and meanings that the rhetor suggests are discovered through the study of the aforementioned key and cluster elements. In the following analysis, I use cluster criticism to examine Rain Man and discern its rhetor’s self-discovery and emotional growth through the evolving acceptance and eventual understanding of those on the autism spectrum.
In Rain Man I have found two key elements—that of the frequently used term car and the symbolic use of the color red. The key term car signifies the life and perspective of Charlie Babbitt: How meeting and getting to know his autistic brother Raymond helps him to open up to human relationships and develop emotionally.
The word Car appears in the film’s dialogue a total of 42 times. The terms that cluster around it include: seize, disturb, without, stolen, passing/passed, crazy, somebody, gone and time. These terms can best be interpreted when placed in subgroups. The first subgroup consists mostly of terms that embody negative connotations often associated with the developmentally or emotionally challenged. These words reveal Charlie’s initial impression and reaction to Raymond’s condition: crazy, disturb(ed), somebody without ( but in need of) permission.
The second subgroup consists primarily of action words (seize, stolen, passed/passing, gone and time) that reflect an unnatural interruption or displacement—possibly of something crucial, i.e. time stolen or seized, time passed, etc. This second subgroup shows the evolution of Charlie’s feelings towards his relationship with Raymond: How time has passed for his chance to experience his big brother; how the years that he could have known Raymond are gone—seized or stolen—by his father or by fate. Essentially, what both subgroups have in common are how they (through Charlie) represent the rhetor’s ever-evolving perspective towards the autistic condition. As Solomon states:
The release of Rain Man, coupled with the advances made in identifying the elusive
causes, have allowed us to abrogate the old myths and understand the humanity of
such autistics as Ray… rather than their different from
the NT mainstream. We have come a long way since the era of “refrigerator
mothers” in our understanding of autism as a neurological disorder rather than a
psychogenic one. Rain Man has helped us to see the humanity, not the wildness, of
autistics. We now see autism as an illness, not as a monstrosity.
The second key element, red, is an intense sign that notably appears at the very beginning of the film—in the form of a bright red Lamborghini that (tellingly) belongs to Charlie’s stable of imports. The car is shown to be literally hanging in the air—much like Charlie’s unstable business dealings, his dysfunctional romantic relationship and non-existent familial relationships.
The red imagery in Rain Man runs counter to the prevalent color scheme of mostly muted shades of gray, browns and greens. Further, it appears at what seem to be crossroads in Charlie’s life: The places where he is given important information–or has to make critical decisions and choices. For example, at his father’s house for the reading of the will, where his father’s prized red roses are, according to Susanna “dying” and–not unlike the relationship between Charlie and his father—have been left unattended and in need of care.
Further still, his father’s classic 1949 Buick serves as a noteworthy emblem of both Charlie’s troubled relationship with his father, as well as the literal and figurative vehicle of his journey with Raymond. The car’s interior has been re-done—changed to red leather—a point significantly observed by Raymond. Also important are the red traffic signals and ‘no-walking’ signs that so upset and confuse Raymond—thereby forcing Charlie to step out of his own, well-guarded self and come to his brother’s aid.
Another area where red makes a critical appearance is at the diner (red ashtray, tabletop, lights on the jukebox and a Cincinnati Red’s t-shirt) where Charlie realizes the true extent of Raymond’s gifts and decides to take him to Las Vegas. The color red shows up again in the neon lights of Vegas as well as the carpet of Charlie and Raymond’s luxurious hotel suite—where Charlie offers Raymond a heartfelt ‘thank you’ in an attempt at a true, emotional connection. At the end of their journey, Charlie and Raymond drop off Susanna at the bottom of red steps that lead up to her apartment—symbolic of the escalating turn her relationship with Charlie has taken as a result of their mutual involvement with Raymond.
Finally, coming to a full realization of both closure and new beginnings, Charlie takes Raymond to a train station adorned with red rosebushes and lovingly puts him on a train back to the institution in Cincinnati. Charlie Babbitt sends his big brother Raymond off with a commitment to future visits—thereby establishing his desire to maintain their relationship.
This analysis of the film Rain Man reveals how the cluster method can be used to show how personal experiences with an individual with special challenges can contribute to the development of basic human understanding and compassion. Further, there are a variety of artifacts that, like Rain Man, are concerned with the atypical nuances of the human condition. Films such as Autism: The Musical (2007); Mozart and the Whale (2005); I am Sam (1998); The Other Sister (1997) and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) offer compelling material that, like Rain Man, concerns those on the autism spectrum. Burke’s cluster analysis approach would be a valuable tool in the examination of these and other artifacts that may exhibit a rhetor’s evolving perspective towards individuals with special challenges.
 Levinson, B. (Director), Rain Man , (United States: United Artists), 1988.
 Treffert, D. Overview of the Savant Syndrome, 2008, www.wisconsinmedicalsociety.org/savant_syndrome/overview_of_savant_syndrome.
 Foss, S.K. Rhetorical Criticism : Exploration and Practice 4th ed., (Long Grove: Waveland Press) 2009, 63.
 Levinson, 1988.