I'm Not There
2007, R, 135 min. Directed by Todd Haynes. Starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Bruce Greenwood, Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 23, 2007
“I don’t belong to anybody,” goes a verse from the titular song, which may very well be the point, or at least one of them, in a film that was “inspired by the many lives of Bob Dylan.” Nobody here’s named Bob, per se, but we get six incarnations that represent cycles in the life of the artist formally known as Robert Zimmerman, from a young strummer’s worship at the altar of folk to renunciation and his own reluctant ascension to idol status (don’t forget the detours into sex, drugs, and Allen Ginsberg). They go by names that point to Dylan’s mentors (like Ramblin’ Jack, Woody Guthrie, Arthur Rimbaud) and faces that range from a preteen black boy (Franklin) to a highly heralded Aussie lass (Blanchett). Blanchett plays Jude – that’s for Judas, as in traitor to the folk scene, the one who blew a raspberry-flavored fuck-you to the folk community by way of an amplifier. Physically, she bears the closest resemblance to Dylan, but as a misunderstood artist (cocaine-)railing and speaking in riddles at an unbeliever British journalist (Greenwood), the role of Jude tips toward the boorish. Blanchett’s great, of course – she’s always great – but the emotional guts of I’m Not There belong to Ledger, as a counterculture actor whose big break comes from starring in a biopic of folksinger Jack (Bale), and Gainsbourg, as his French painter wife, Claire. Haynes plays their love affair out to the backdrop of Vietnam, and the moment Claire links the Vietnam armistice to the death knell of her marriage is easily the most transportive thing I’ve seen on celluloid all year. The only interlude that, if not fails, certainly flags, is Gere’s sad-clown Billy the Kid, which comes in far too late in the film and suffers from Gere’s granny glasses and a perpetual mope that reads like someone kicked his dog. (Actually, it ran away on its accord. Good dog.) His arc – about a township named Riddle about to be overrun by the despot Pat Garrett (also played by Greenwood) – is intentionally pocked with anachronisms: Townsfolk wear Civil War getups and speak in an old-fashioned patois alongside plastic Halloween masks and strings of electric bulbs. It’s the most opaque outing in the film but also perhaps the most visually arresting, as when My Morning Jacket’s Jim James performs “Goin’ to Acapulco” as funeral dirge for a child bride. The narrative stops in its track for something bewildering and utterly breathtaking … and so it goes for Haynes’ piece as a whole: It doesn’t always make sense (and goes on too long by 20 minutes), but, damn, it looks good – and feels good, too, if melancholy is your cup of tea. After the Oscar “legitimacy” of his ode to Douglas Sirk, Far From Heaven, Haynes could’ve burrowed deeper underground or sold out entirely: Instead, he’s created a dazzling hybrid. There’s an undeniable thrill to watching something so experimental and yet totally accessible to those of us who speak only layman’s Dylanese, and it’s Haynes’ warmest film yet. The thing is infused with love – not the slavish kind but a true-eyed tribute to the artist who belongs to nobody and everybody at once. (See "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" for an interview with Todd Haynes.)