“I’m Not There” (The Weinstein Company) is an incredible film that draws beautiful narrative circles around the perimeter of its central character without ever letting the viewer inside to meet the real Bob Dylan. The flawless Cate Blanchett leads a stellar cast in this nontraditional film, which uses six distinct actors to portray different stages in Dylan’s life.
The film opens with an assault on the viewer. For a moment, before the title card flashes, we are Bob Dylan as director Todd Haynes shows his mastery of the first-person perspective. We are backstage before a show, being herded forward. Dylan is hesitant, exhausted and drugged – all of which is lucidly apparent from the way the camera glances backwards, bounces indecisively from person to person, and centers strangely on the unimportant details of the ceiling. The sounds are a scratchy combination of a still-distant restless crowd, a band warming up and managers shouting at each other. Dylan seems to be dreading the stage. His gaze refuses to focus on what is ahead. The maze of dark shadows deepens, but the roar of the crowd amplifies relentlessly as the camera trudges forward and is suddenly hit with a blinding spotlight and the maddening scream of fans. The screen seems about to explode. Cut to title card.
Make no mistake, this is not a bio-epic. Director Todd Haynes has made a film that actually feels like a Dylan song first and a movie about Bob Dylan second. Viewers should be ready for an avant-garde experience where the unreal is commonplace and the absurd is celebrated. In one scene, Dylan floats above a city like a kite on a string. In another, a car pulls away after a concert and a fan calmly lights her head on fire. This strangeness permeates the film and succeeds in creating a world that looks a lot like ours but, for two hours, is seen through the perspective of one of our greatest poets.
Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw and Marcus Carl Franklin each play Dylan in a different phase of his enigmatic life. Blanchett’s performance is a wonder of modern cinema. She not only looks like the strung-out, stressed-out, “Blonde on Blonde”-era Dylan, she talks and moves exactly like him. After collecting the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival, she can probably look forward to an award season of continual acclaim. Ben Whishaw’s Dylan is detained by unknown authorities and is questioned by an unseen interrogator at points of transition between stories. Franklin, a young black
boy, gives a heartfelt performance as the New York City-bound runaway Dylan, while Heath Ledger nails the arrogant rock-star phase. Richard Gere is miscast in the most motionless part of the film, which portrays Dylan as a vagabond in the carnival-like hills of Appalachia. Edward Lachman’s cinematography skillfully creates a different visual mood for each story line, from the stark black and white of the delusional Blanchett episodes to the vibrant color of Ledger’s rock-star rollicking.
The movie effortlessly succeeds as a work of art, but is it compelling? Only in bits and pieces. The scenes with Ledger are the most engaging – it is sadly engrossing to watch Dylan turn on his wife (the always enchanting Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their children. Blanchett’s performance will awe viewers and the strange visual tricks of director Todd Haynes will keep them interested. But this movie sneers at the concept that art should entertain. “I’m Not There” offers its viewers nothing to hold on to. It abandons a coherent narrative, lacks any unifying theme and kills its characters just as we begin to understand them. All the same, its vision is undeniable and it must be acknowledged as one of the proudest accomplishments of recent American cinema.
Viewers will leave this film feeling exhausted if they try to force the discordant pieces together in a meaningful way. The best advice on how to approach “I’m Not There” may come from Dylan himself, in a line repeated by Ben Whishaw: “I accept chaos. I’m not sure if it accepts me.” For the 135 minutes of this movie, the best option is definitely to accept chaos.
“I’m Not There,” starring Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw and Marcus Carl Franklin, is now playing in theaters nationwide.