Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw. Rated R.
I’m Not There is the
first biographical treatment of Bob Dylan to earn the legendary singer’s
approval, though it is hardly the first time (nor I suspect the last) that a
filmmaker has documented the life of America’s inscrutable troubadour. Famously
mercurial, Dylan has long resisted outsiders’ attempts to find meaning in his
words, whether in the context of his songs or in one of his maddeningly
unrevealing interviews. Yet he is regarded by some as a national treasure, a
sage whose wisdom lies hidden deep in the subtext of his freewheeling poetry.
Whether or not you buy into
the Dylan idolatry may well
determine your response to I’m Not There,
which makes the all too common mistake of treating its subject as a
misunderstood genius. As a musician, Dylan has established himself as an icon,
but as a philosopher he leaves something to be desired. He speaks in riddles,
and when he tells a reporter early in the film that he’s more of a trapeze
artist than a folk singer, it makes you wonder whether he’s hinting at some
elusive Truth or just spouting nonsense.
Todd Haynes, who wrote and directed I’m Not There, seems to regard Dylan’s opaque ramblings as profound,
though his take on the Artist Formerly Known as Robert Zimmerman is
not always flattering. It is an unconventional, fragmented portrait – one
reason, perhaps, that Dylan gave it his blessing – that follows no
chronological order, and focuses less on the man than on his carefully tailored
image. Tellingly, the film never mentions Dylan by name; he is the ghost Haynes
is chasing, personified by six different characters who represent various
manifestations of the singer’s elusive persona.
There is Jack (Christian Bale), the serious-minded
revolutionary who galvanizes the Greenwich Village underground with his songs
of protest; Robbie (Heath Ledger), the cynical movie star whose marriage is
fatally fractured; and Billy (Richard Gere), the bespectacled outlaw who
represents Dylan’s fascination with the Old West and, more specifically, the
fabled showdown between Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
Robbie, a womanizing loner exhausted by a life
on the road,
is the most intriguing, and Ledger plays him with the world-weary resignation
of a man whose passions have run dry. It is a straightforward performance, less
mannered and more engaging than Bale’s so-so impersonation, but the real star
of I’m Not There is Cate Blanchett,
plays Dylan as a drug-addicted burnout at the peak of his mid-’60s celebrity.
slender frame, gaunt cheekbones and wildly tangled
curls, Blanchett bears the most striking resemblance to Dylan during his Don’t
Look Back heyday, though Jude, her flaky
alter ego, hardly seems like a man at the height of his creative powers. He is
juvenile and self-absorbed, shielding himself from reality behind his oversized
sunglasses and thick clouds of cigarette smoke. When he greets reporters on the
eve of an ill-fated tour, he remains as impenetrable as ever, a portrait of
calculated eccentricity. If we don’t get it, well, the joke’s on us.
over two of the seminal periods in Dylan’s
life – his return from a near-fatal motorcycle crash and his late-’70s
conversion to Christianity – but perhaps that’s beside the point. I’m Not
There is abstract expressionism, paying
tribute to its hero in a fashion every bit as enigmatic and chameleon-like as
the man himself. Is it a faux-documentary? Is it a biographical drama? At
times, it is both. In the end, we are left with an ambitious misfire that
obscures as much as it reveals about one of America’s most prominent yet