The following review was originally published by Unbound Culture in Spring 2008.
In Todd Haynes’s stunning I’m Not There, the character Jude Quinn, played with fierce intensity by Cate Blanchett, says, “You never know how the past will turn out.” The film, a cubist portrait of Bob Dylan—part musical biopic, part documentary, and part surreal fantasy—is its own response to that statement. It challenges the audience to accept the protean nature of the past. No longer a solid record of events for history books, the past changes as we change, as our understandings change. And if the past is protean in nature, then so are those who embody it. Thus, the film gives us its subject—the multifaceted Dylan—in six separate shapes.
Haynes’s approach is both refreshing and relevant. Indeed, after watching I’m Not There, other biopics feel limited in scope and claustrophobic. How can one plot line capture the essence of a complex and mutable individual? More would be necessary for an honest portrait. Haynes chooses six, and the beauty is in the collage-like manner of presentation. In the hands of a different filmmaker, the temptation might have been to tell the six stories separately, but that would have been beside the point (at least based on what I believe the point to be), and that’s that Dylan was not one of these characters at one point in his life, but that he is at all times all six.
The six actors playing the six Dylans are all capable, offering believable and sometimes inspired performances, but the standout is indeed Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, a takeoff of Dylan from the 60s when he was struggling with celebrity, the media, and angry fans accusing him of selling out. Blanchett is a revelation: hardened yet vulnerable, aggressive yet restrained. Her “Ballad of a Thin Man” sequence is probably the most memorable in the whole film, and her various interview scenes are small comic gems.
Other notable performances include Christian Bale as the folk singer Jack Rollins (early Dylan) and Heath Ledger (in what would become one of his last performances) as the actor Robbie Clark, famed for playing Jack Rollins in a movie. Bale captures Dylan’s look and mannerisms almost as well as Blanchett, and his portrayal of Rollins during his born-again Christian phase provides one of the film’s most pleasantly unexpected musical numbers. Ledger, on the other hand, gives a more tortured but less Dylan-esque performance as Clark, a man dealing with the burden of celebrity (like Jude Quinn) but also struggling with a failing marriage. These two performances, along with Blanchett’s, best capture the outer life of Dylan, the man forever caught in the public eye.
That leaves Marcus Carl Franklin as a young black boy calling himself Woody Guthrie, Ben Whishaw as a poet calling himself Arthur Rimbaud, and Richard Gere as an aging Billy the Kid. These three performances best capture the inner life of Dylan. Franklin shines in his role, which is both touching and absurd (he’s a great talent with wonderful manners, but he probably wouldn’t be drinking wine and singing of heartache at age 11). More importantly, however, the character is an integral part of Dylan’s psyche—the young, naïve musician on the run from his past and hoping to make a difference in the world. And, of course, Dylan modeled his early songwriting off of the real Woody Guthrie.
Gere and Whishaw are adequate in their respective roles but hardly exceptional. Indeed, Rimbaud, the poet side of Dylan, has no real story in the film—he simply exists to offer poetic insights. And Gere’s scenes as Billy the Kid are too surreal to warrant any sort of magic other than that exuded by the wild animals running through the Halloween-themed town of Riddle. These scenes are the most difficult to swallow, as the story of protecting a Wild West town from the mechanizations of an old Pat Garret feels out of place. But again, like Guthrie, these two characters are integral parts of Dylan’s psyche. To be sure, Dylan’s lyrics often appear in poetry collections, and he has always been fascinated with the Billy the Kid legend (even going so far as to write the soundtrack for a film about the man).
Though I’m Not There sometimes falters on its weighty conceptual level, it excels at all times on a technical level. For example, the photography shot by cinematographer Edward Lachman is both brilliant and beautiful, and it even changes as the film does—crisp color in some scenes, grainy black and white in others, but with an even greater variety in tones and textures to further distinguish the six characters from each other. And the musical selections, numerous songs from Dylan’s vast catalogue (some sung by him, some sung by others), add a surprising emotional depth to many of the film’s best scenes. These elements, as well as the careful editing by Jay Rabinowitz, the genius scripting by Haynes and Oren Moverman, and the previously mentioned performances, are what make this movie such an artistic success.
I’m Not There has set a new course for cinematic biopics. Hopefully, others will follow in Haynes’s footsteps by perhaps further invigorating the genre in more new and exciting ways. Like the past, you never know how the future will turn out.