Ostensibly, Todd Haynes' near-masterpiece, "I'm Not There," tells the story of Bob Dylan. But on a deeper level, the film is about freedom -- what it is, how to get it, how to keep it, how to live once it has gone, how to reconcile an unquenchable thirst for it with a world where masked and anonymous men dangle it like a carrot, then snatch it away.
It's also a movie about identity. With these as his grand themes, Haynes could find no more enigmatic a figure than Bob Dylan to cloak his (often fact-based) fantasies upon. "I'm Not There" is a hypnagogic head trip of a movie. It's beautiful, confusing, unsettling, poetic, frustrating and sublime in equal measures.
Bob Dylan, as a character, is an onion. Studying Dylan -- which is an endlessly fascinating exercise -- is akin to peeling away layers of that onion. By the time anyone had heard of him, Dylan had already pulled a fast one, buried his past, taken a new name, written a romanticized biography for himself. Before he was 20, Dylan was as old as the country he imagined himself riding the rails over, as a dust-bowl refugee and troubadour-of-the-people. Dylan was never who you thought he was. Nearly 50 years later, he still isn't.
Haynes knows his Dylan history, and he has made a film that will have particular appeal to fellow Dylan scholars. More than most acolytes, Haynes "gets it" -- he knows "Dylan" is a multipersonality construct, a myriad-edged representation of an American character. So rather than construct a "biopic" -- that would've been boring, and certainly would not have claimed Dylan's blessing, which Haynes actually did procure -- Haynes grabbed ahold of the myth, broke it down into six identifiable character types, and enlisted six different actors to play those character types. All add up to Bob Dylan. All also add up to nothing. Once Dylan becomes an insect to be pinned to a board, he slips away. Hence the film's title.
"I'm Not There" is brilliant, if occasionally flawed. The closer Haynes gets to biographical detail, the less interesting the film becomes. Happily, the editing and sequencing of the vignettes -- seamless, and each granted a striking cinematographic slant, a visual mark-of-Cain -- keep the film from being weighed down by these occasional run-ins with "the truth." (As well-played as the Heath Ledger/Charlotte Gainsbourg sequences are, they come too close to outlining Dylan's failed marriage to first wife Sarah, something that is best left to the "real" Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album. Haynes weaves this realism into the broader fabric pretty deftly, but it still stands out a bit more than it might've.)
Cate Blanchett gives an incredibly virtuosic performance that ought to win her an Oscar as the "young lion" Dylan of the "Highway 61/Blonde on Blonde" era. Blanchett's Jude brings an air of androgyny to the mercurial, speed-addled Dylan bound, like a Kafka character, for a painful metamorphosis. The Dylan who noted that "the ghosts of electricity howl from the bones of her face" was in danger of being swallowed whole, Jonah-style, but the gaping maw of his own imagination, and Blanchett captures this inner turmoil with a killer blend of physical and intellectual projection.
When you head to the theater for "I'm Not There," leave at home any expectations you might have concerning linear plot, a standard delineation of time or a logic that forsakes poetry and places the empirical above the imagined. You won't need them. Part of "I'm Not There's" considerable genius is the fact that, while you're taking Dylan's/Haynes' trip with him, you're not there either.
I'M NOT THERE
3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Marcus Carl Franklin and Ben Whishaw
DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes
RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes
RATING: R for language, some sexuality, nudity.
THE LOWDOWN: A surrealistic take on the life of Bob Dylan, with six actors portraying different aspects of the Dylan character's personality.