I’m Not There
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Written by: Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman (screenplay)
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, and Richard Gere
Where to begin? Here is a movie with almost no beginning and no end, an interwoven tale about both the same person and six very different ones. It’s fitting that a movie about such a radical is filled with radical notions of its own, at least about filmmaking.
Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There is a visionary look into the life and ever-shifting personas of Bob Dylan. You don’t hear his name once during the two-and-a-half hour journey into his head, but at the end you get something you don’t usually get from biopics: a true understanding and examination of the subject. We don’t follow a single artist as they are discovered to have musical talent, inevitably become famous and then acquire famous people problems. All of these things happen in I’m Not There, but to different characters in different ways.
For 70 years today, Bob Dylan has been alive, and for most of that time he’s been almost a mythic figure of American pop culture. The biggest success of Haynes’ films is that he doesn’t try to tame that illusiveness, but that it adapts stylistically to fit it. The celebrity Dylan (Heath Ledger) is playing the folk-hero Dylan (Christian Bale) in a movie. Symbolism like this just scratches the surface of the rewards to be found with multiple viewings.
Stylistically, I’m Not There can go from straight-forward color to surreal black-and-white within the span of five minutes. It’s structured so that all of the stories push forward in almost equal measure. The abrupt changes from a fugitive (Richard Gere) in the Old West to the well-known “electric” rebel (Cate Blanchett) period can throw the viewer off. But like the organized chaos of David Lynch, no scene is without merit to the whole kaleidiscope.
There are fairly big names in such a weird movie. All of the actors are great, but none are greater than Blanchett. You’d never expect Oscar voters to look at such a divisive, out-of-this world movie and nominate it for anything, but she scored a Best Supporting Actress nomination for playing Dylan the martyr.
Blanchett’s striking similarity to the iconic Dylan of the 60s only enhances her portrait of an artist at a creative breakdown. Her performance has Jude Quinn (all of the Dylans have aliases) using his tremendous talent and quick wit as a venemous defense against the press and his own emotional breakdown. It’s a wonder to behold.
Though none of the actors match Blanchett’s captivating turn, Heath Ledger comes close. As Robbie, a fried celebrity who falls in and out of love with a French woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg), he hits all the marks. That Ledger’s on-screen character was also reflecting his life at that time only makes it more poignant.
Christian Bale shows up as both the early folk Dylan and the born-again preacher he became in the 80s. By connecting these two to the same person, Haynes commentates on the “prophet” label often attributed to him in the beginning.
Richard Gere plays perhaps the oddest “Dylan,” which is actually the famous outlaw Billy the Kid. This character is said to represent the reclusive Hermit Dylan became after the near-fatal motorcycle accident that begins the film.
The two unknowns, the young African-American Marcus Carl Franklin and the British actor Ben Whishaw stand tall with the big names. Franklin plays a fraud on the run who disguises himself as Woody Guthrie; Whishaw is simply a man standing trial, forced to answer questions he doesn’t want to, just like any conventional Dylan biopic would’ve attempted to do.
In these six interwoven narratives, there are boundless references to Dylan’s life and art, whether it’s song lyrics put into dialogue or actual performances of songs. It needs to be said, though, that this isn’t necessary to appreciate it.
Haynes is a cinematic visionary in the truest sense. There are no sweeping landscapes or epic war scenes, but instead a grand character mosaic on a truly ambitious scale that takes a single man and makes him six.
As we wander through this tall-tale folk legend’s illusive life, the movie opens many doors without providing definitive answers. You must provide your own, and as such you need to truly put yourself into this movie in order to get something out of it. It’s a challenge, much like Dylan’s music can be, but that also means it is well worth accepting.