I'm Not There **1/2
Directed by Todd Haynes
Written by Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman
Christian Bale as Bob Dylan / John / Jack
Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan / Jude
Marcus Carl Franklin as Bob Dylan / Woody
Richard Gere as Bob Dylan / Billy
Heath Ledger as Bob Dylan/ Robbie
Ben Whishaw as Bob Dylan / Arthur
David Cross as Allen Ginsberg
Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire
Julianne Moore as Alice
135 Minutes(Rated R for language, some sexuality and nudity. )
Todd Haynes is probably one of the favorite working film makers at the moment. "Far From Heaven" impressed me to no end when I saw it a few years ago, and over the summer I got to see "Safe" at a midnight screening-a film that uses sound and simple imagery to become one of the scariest films I have ever seen. "I'm Not There" is his newest foray into experimental film making-this time he is trying to make a biopic of the great musician Bob Dylan. I can certainly admire Haynes' method in making this film, taking the standard formula for a biopic and turning it upside down. I have been bashing the genre for a while, claiming that they all end up going the same route. "El Cantante" and "Control" are both from this year, and while the latter film certainly is the better one, both of them seem to have the same essence of the musician-his rise to fame, the long suffering wife, his eventual drug problem when he can't take the fame, and then usually their death-sometimes suicide, sometimes overdoes, and sometimes both.
"I'm Not There" does not go that route whatsoever. In fact this is as far from a conventional film as you'll most likely get this year. Instead of telling the story of Bob Dylan, Haynes has six characters, played by six different actors. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin (a child actor), and Cate Blanchett. And the characters that they all play end up being versions of Bob Dylan at various stages of his career and life. The words Bob Dylan are not in this film at all, and while they all resemble Dylan, and speak like Dylan, and even act like Dylan, they are not Dylan. This was done to try and tell the Dylan story, but at the same time allow him to remain an enigma-something that Bob Dylan tried to do all the time. "All I'm trying to do is be me-whoever that is," reads a quote off the original trailer for the film.
And so we begin, moving in non-linear fashion-changing direction styles depending on whose on the screen. We get Marcus Carl Franklin, a young African American boy who represents Dylans early influences of the blues. Dubbed Woody, he's a young boy who hops onto a train passing down a field where he plays his guitar, whose case reads This Machine Kills Fascists. We get Bale as Jack Collins, a folk singer whose life is shown via documentary style footage (with a cameo by Julianne Moore, a version of one of Dylan's wives.) We segway from this into Heath Ledger's character, Robbie, an actor who played Collins in a movie version of his life. We also get to know Robbie's unhappy marriage to his wife Claire (played by the beautiful Charlotte Gainsbourg). All throughout these opening pieces we are introduced to the Whishaw Dylan, filmed in grainy black and white with him speaking directly to the camera in interview fashion. This character is a more pompous and rather stuffy version, with him saying things like "It's nature's will, but I'm against nature." It's about an hour in when we get to the real meat of the film, the Blanchett character-a rock star named Jude Quinn-films in a crisp black and white. This is a rather fun installment in the film-Blanchett is terrific here, with some of her best work since her Katherine Hepburn in "The Aviatar," and we follow "him" being harassed by the British press, as well as an affair with a model played by Michelle Williams, where Haynes is probably going for his affair with Edie Sedgwick. And lastly, the Richard Gere Dylan, an adult version of Billy the Kid, where the film takes a western turn and has him riding a horse into a town that celebrates Halloween strongly. While this segment certainly does have the best images visually, it's a slow portion compared to the rest.
I can see where Haynes was going with this movie, and I can certainly admire him for changing things up a bit with the genre. I'm also assuming that much of the small detail went a little over my head-die hard Dylan fans could probably spot more in-references to his life than the little knowledge that I have. However I found myself extremely distant from this film on an emotional level. I felt more like an observer than an actual viewer. I even think that Haynes maybe tried to do a little too much here-the documentary portions in the Bale version took me away strongly, and the interview portions with the Whishaw Dylan just annoyed me to no end. The Blanchett performance really is quite fun, and there is a lot of real comedy here-with a reference to The Beatles, as well as David Cross as Allen Ginsberg, to which the concept and idea of that puts a smile to you're face. I'm not a huge David Cross fan, but he really was the only person to play Ginsberg. And I liked the overal arc-the rather sly innocence of the Franklin and Bale versions, with Ledger as the segway into the rather mysterious and even stuck up Dylans played by Blanchett and Whishaw.
And so I walk away from "I'm Not There" admiring it more than I like it. I admire Haynes take on the material-and he really is one of the most innovative film makers around at the moment. I admire the risks her took and the way he told this story. I really liked most of the performances, and I really liked the direction. Some shots-especially during the Gere piece-are just beautiful to look at. It's always an original film, but it just needed a little more, and maybe even a little less. I left the theatre forgetting it, but at the same time happy that it's there, happy that I saw it, and happy that it existed.