I don’t even know how to review I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes’ ode to Bob Dylan. The movie is unlike anything I’ve seen before, a technically masterful drama that portrays the infamous singer not in literal terms but as an abstraction of his life and music. In I’m Not There, six actors portray Dylan in completely different ways, representing different phases of his life and career – if that sounds too strange for you, than you might as well stop reading now.
Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, Heath Ledger and yes, even Cate Blanchett, portray Dylan, though it’s not a simple trade off as the film progresses. Their stories work interchangeably and out of chronological order, and though they are technically “Dylan”, they each have different character names, appearances and relationships. Hell, Gere plays a form of Billy the Kid in some rough back hick town at the turn of the century, and Franklin is a young black kid who rides in box cars. This is not your average musician biopic, if you can even label it as a biopic at all.
One thing that will really help you with I’m Not There is some knowledge of Bob Dylan’s history. I don’t know a thing about him, other than what I’ve seen in a few lousy movies (like Factory Girl), and as such I was pretty much lost throughout most of the movie. The very fact that each representation of Bob Dylan had their own character name was confusing enough, let alone that it was unclear to determine which phase each actor represented. Nevertheless, the presentation is intoxicating, even if you don’t know what the end goal is.
Haynes’ work will surely turn heads among anyone who sees this picture. The director of the highly acclaimed but rather forgettable Far from Heaven, Haynes has created an entirely different beast here. What starts off as simply unique turns into a superbly handled, metaphysical character study of one man, interpreted in different ways by different actors. It is not just that each segment works on its own accord, but that they all work together in a seamless, perfect way. It is almost impossible to comprehend that anyone could conceive of such a picture, let alone pull it off, but Haynes somehow does it nonetheless.
On a simpler note, the acting is great, and everyone involved turn in terrific performances. As good as Bale, Gere, Franklin, Whishaw and Ledger are, it is Blanchett who steals the show. When she first appears in the frame of the story, the movie kicks into high gear, and the energy and intensity she brings is recognized instantly. This is no fault to the other actors – her “character” is the most eclectic of the group – but Blanchett has proven that she can transform herself into anyone. An Oscar-nominated performance? I will be shocked if we don’t see her name.
My only complaint with I’m Not There is that it does tend to drag on a bit more. Haynes actually tries to wrap up each one of his sub stories, which backfires just a bit. While in the end it’s nice that he took this approach, he could have easily finished the film 20 minutes earlier and no one would have noticed. Haynes goes overboard in jumping between stories near the end, as each segment becomes shorter and shorter and blend more and more together. Unfortunately, I’m Not There begins to suffer from what I call “Multiple Ending Syndrome,” also known as MES. I thought the movie was going to end about twenty times, and when you set yourself up for an ending that doesn’t happen, it becomes a bit frustrating. Had Haynes kept things a little simpler, I’m Not There would have flowed to the ending credits much better.
I’m Not There is not a movie I would normally like, but Haynes’ masterful handling of the difficult material makes this Bob Dylan picture one of the best of the year.
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