We first meet the real Bob Dylan, lit by a spotlight and blowing into a harmonica with his eyes turned ever-downward, at the very end of Todd Haynes
' I'm Not There. (The footage comes from a concert filmed in the 1960s.) Though there are six evocations of our hero's persona and dozens of references to his words and images, his actual visage is kept under lock and key until the solemn credits. To Haynes, the mystery of who the man is behind closed doors should stay that way: Behind closed doors tends to be pretty tedious if not downright boring. It's more fun to extrapolate: In the open valleys of cultural myth, a celebrity can become any number of things.
At first, he's a young, train-hopping wanderer who has taken the name Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin
), from his hero Woody Guthrie. He also plays a guitar with "This Machine Kills Fascism" painted on it. Later, the man appears as an aged Billy the Kid (Richard Gere
) who can't understand why the locals are being bullied out of their land by a decrepit Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenwood). Fitfully, the sequences are shot in the dusty browns of Peckinpah and the hippie westerns of the late 1960s and 1970s. Both stories, along with the others, are consistently interrupted by a press conference with poet Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw
), who speaks in a particularly American sarcasm while scrutinizing everyone who questions him, half-mumbling with cigarette in hand. Article continues below
In a scratched and uneasy documentary style a la Harlan County USA, we are introduced to Jack (Christian Bale
) who goes from being a mythical folk singer in the New York Bowery and Lower East Side to a born-again Christian preacher in the south. Aged and ragged, Bale does a terrifyingly acute rendition of "Pressin' On," a cut from the much-bemoaned Saved album, with a gospel choir backing. Jack's early folk ramblings are consequently the subject of a film starring Robbie (Heath Ledger
) who no sooner becomes haunted by the songwriter than he falls for an artist named Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg
). Slowly, Robbie succumbs to the habits and beliefs of the rebellious musician, tearing his family apart. Gainsbourg appropriates a concluding speech from Godard's Masculine Feminine as she ends her marriage to the actor.
And then there's Jude (Cate Blanchett
), the androgynous approximation of Dylan-going-electric. The tonal residue of 8 1/2 and a Richard Lester marathon, Haynes style becomes wholly ambidextrous in the black-and-white milieu of Jude's confrontations with television journalist Mr. Jones (Greenwood again). The set pieces play like metaphorical jungle-gyms: a Warhol apartment screening a projection of Lyndon B. Johnson with "Tombstone Blues" subtitles, a fluid trip from fooling around with the Beatles to chasing Coco (Michelle Williams
), a former lover, through the forest. All the performances are brilliant but Blanchett's is an act of wonderment; she plays Jude like a marionette ambivalent to its puppeteer, contorting and shifting to "Ballad of a Thin Man," body unencumbered by formal ways of movement.
Densely interwoven, I'm Not There fills in the gaps of Haynes' similarly-minded Velvet Goldmine by disregarding the idea of the outsider. In Goldmine, Bale played a man obsessed with the glam identity but not embroiled in it; an agent of free will outside the provocateurs of glam. His closest approximation here, Ledger's character, refuses to be excluded from the melee and becomes part of the landscape along with all the other personas. In fact, the film most closely resembles Far From Heaven in daring to take an accepted and popular style and imbuing it with modern themes.
In the same realm as Richard Kelly
's Southland Tales
, I'm Not There engulfs and nearly drowns the viewer in the widespread apparitions, intimations, and projections of the artist rather than attempting to possess him. What ultimately devalues films like Ray and Walk the Line is an attempt to assign these legends to the realm of humanity; a nagging dream that we could be like them since we've been through similar human experiences. But I'm Not There is wholly uninterested in the pitfalls of sex, drugs, marriage, affairs, and children. Haynes' film, certainly his masterpiece to date and one of the year's best, elusively evokes everything Dylan has reflected while keeping him, as always, ostensibly unknowable. In the words of Bobby Zimmerman, the very ones Haynes ends his film on: "It's like the past, present, and future sitting in the same room together."