Director Todd Haynes certainly has a vision with his new film I’m Not There but that vision doesn’t translate well onto the screen. In fact, much of what is there is abstruse if not indecipherable. There is definitely an audience that will or already do think that this unique film about the musician Bob Dylan is among the year’s best, but I’m not part of it. I’m Not There is a hybrid film; an ambitious but ultimately failed experiment that almost seems to be esoteric to afficionados of the legendary folk singer. It’s a cross between a David Lynch phantasmagoria, a documentary, and a biopic like La Vie en Rose. The result is a sometimes brilliant but mostly frustrating, tedious, incoherent, and non-linear mess about six intersecting segments of Bob Dylan’s life that has no nucleus to amalgamate. Proof that originality isn’t everything, this is a rare film that tries too hard to separate itself from the conventional herd of Oscar bait dramas.
As I mentioned before, six different actors personify different stages of the life of the eloquent song writer and zeitgeist of 1960’s folk music, Bob Dylan. You need to know this heading into I’m Not There because any viewer going into it with no knowledge will find themselves completely on their own because the film will be of no help. The best of these segments are the ones involving Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, and film acting newcomer Marcus Carl Franklin. The worst are the segments featuring Richard Gere and Ben Whishaw (2006’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer). Packed in the middle is the character played by Christian Bale. What is fascinating about I’m Not There is that these are individual characters in their own right. This is a truly fresh and original idea that is unfortunately wasted as Haynes’ vision is both the highpoint and downfall of the picture. Character development is nearly absent as Haynes seems to have a mania with the myth rather than the man.
Christian Bale plays Jack Rollins, the most popular folk singer of the 60’s. In this part of the film, Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore, 2006’s Children of Men) is shown being interviewed about her longtime partner (Rollins) and she describes how insightful his lyrics were. Bale’s segment is a mixed bag; it’s not particularly good nor bad but the actor continues to show why he is among the most talented performers of today. Future The Dark Knight co-star Heath Ledger plays Robbie Clark, an actor who plays Jack Rollins in a movie. This was the film’s strongest asset as it explored Clark’s relationship with Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Golden Door); from how they fell in love to the complications of their marriage. Ledger nails every note of his performance; easily his best work since Brokeback Mountain. Cate Blanchett plays Jude Quinn, a well-respected musician who slowly loses his popularity as he loses sight of everything he stands for by converting from folk to rock ‘n’ roll. Now that the versatile Cate Blanchett has successfully and convincingly played a male, is there any role she can’t play?
Viewers will have the delight of discovering a new young talent in Marcus Carl Franklin who plays Woody Guthrie, a young, precocious blues singer who runs away from home in order to become a famous musician. Ben Whishaw has very little to do as Arthur Rimbaud except stare into the camera as he’s being interviewed. Richard Gere’s role in this is the biggest question mark. It’s nothing against Gere, but what does his character, Billy the Kid, have to do with anything? This part is immensely convoluted, at first seeming to take place in the post Civil War 1800’s but apparently not so. Frankly, Billy the Kid looked like he walked in from another movie.
I’m Not There plays out like a film that Haynes made only for himself. That’s the only explanation I can think of for what transpires on screen. All of his choices are debatable. Some segments are shot in black-and-white while the others are in color. Instead of telling each story in it’s entirety, he jumps back and forth between them. None of this really worked for me. This creates a muddled picture that quickly becomes a chore to sit through.
You can look at the film as a poem or even as a folk song. I’m Not There is fraught with symbolism and underlying meanings. I don’t know about you, but I usually find that to be the recipe for a headache. The one thing I did like was Haynes’ attention on the curly hair and sunglasses of Jude Quinn; a symbolization of the enigma underneath the look. Quinn is the closest thing to the Bob Dylan we know. I also appreciated the way Haynes presented Dylan’s folk songs as a character in the film. If there is one saving grace that keeps the film from being totally arid, it is these songs.
Despite my overall negative feelings for I’m Not There, I will say that this film does give you much to ruminate about and if you do happen to like it, I would recommend seeing it multiple times. It is undoubtedly a film in which you can take in something new from each viewing and it is also unlike anything I’ve seen, not only this year, but ever. But then again, the same can be said about a film I truly loathe; Inland Empire. Both films felt dragged out with plenty of scenes to be excised. Consequently, I have no desire to see either of them again.