Unpredictable, evasive, incomprehensible—these epithets have all been thrown Bob Dylan’s way. Director Todd Haynes’ new film, I’m Not There, which analyzes and deconstructs Dylan by using six actors to play him, has already been accused of similar pretension and obliquity. But as any true fan knows—and as Haynes demonstrates in his film—Dylan’s refusal to give straight answers, his unwillingness to inhabit one static persona, and his relentless self-mythologizing, are the real sources of his greatness. To see a single, fully-formed artist would ruin the mystery, and Dylan and Haynes both know this all too well.
For all the visual and aural fireworks of I’m Not There—and make no mistake, the film is an assault on the senses in the best way possible—Haynes’ approach is emphatically academic. Dylan has always elicited a more intellectual kind of admiration than most rock icons, and Haynes has clearly done his homework. The film is littered with visual tributes to old clips of Dylan, as well as references to specific events in his career and lyrics from his songs. The words “Bob Dylan” are never mentioned in the film—each of the six Dylans has a different name—but diehard fans will take delight in seeing their favorite lyrics and legends onscreen.
Haynes tackles an unthinkably ambitious project with admirable chutzpah. The rapid-fire editing, various coloration schemes, and chaotic plot all contribute to a feverish, discordant, and bizarre experience that shows supreme confidence and is the end product of many years of loving, and really thinking about, Dylan and his music. Above all, I’m Not There is a film that demands to be met on its own terms. Those looking for blind idol-worship, reassurance, or easy answers about what Dylan “means” will not leave happy, but those willing to play Haynes’ game will be richly rewarded.
Given the chaotic nature of the film, the performances are quite solid. Christian Bale admirably plays folksinger (who later becomes a born-again minister) Jack Rollins, and Haynes audaciously taps a 14-year-old black actor, Marcus Carl Franklin, to play Dylan during his earliest years. Calling himself Woody Guthrie, Franklin’s character hops trains and seems fixated on singing songs about the Dust Bowl until his dinner host one night admonishes, “Live your own time, child. Sing about your own time.” Heath Ledger, as the arrogant and distant actor Robbie Clark, turns in a skilled performance that elicits more disgust than sympathy, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Clark’s disillusioned and ignored wife, proves Ledger’s equal in terms of emotional honesty.
It’s Cate Blanchett, however, who walks away with the show-stopping performance. Representing Dylan during his mid-’60s zenith, Blanchett gives a harrowing, androgynous, and meticulous portrait of Dylan, replete with wiry, nervous energy and a true sense of emotional detachment. The breakneck pace and amphetamine-fueled haze of parties and concerts during this sequence is thoroughly engrossing, and Blanchett’s confrontation with a straitlaced but knowing British journalist, played by Bruce Greenwood, is a thrilling battle of wits that challenges and entertains in equal measures.
Richard Gere’s sequence, in which Dylan is portrayed as a Western outlaw called Billy the Kid (a reference to the 1972 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which Dylan scored), is likely to prove the stumbling block for casual fans. While visually rich with the deep greens and browns of pastoral America, Gere’s sequence only makes sense within the context of Dylan’s late-’60s/early-’70s return to the mythic roots of American folk music. Gere gives a solid performance, but those not familiar with this era of Dylan’s music will likely be left scratching their heads.
Some underdeveloped performances and a bit too much obvious symbolism aside, I’m Not There comes together admirably as a whole. The film is peppered throughout with Dylan’s inimitable music, most of it extraordinary well-chosen. Haynes wisely avoids the more iconic songs in favor of lesser-known gems like “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and a poignant acoustic take of “Idiot Wind.” Complementing Dylan’s own recordings are a few excellent covers, the most arresting of which is a haunting version of “Goin’ To Acapulco,” sung by Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Calexico.
In the end, though, no matter how good the songs or actors are, I’m Not There is about more than any one of its facets. We come no closer to solving the problem of who Dylan “is,” but to wish for an easy ending is contrary to the spirit of the film in the first place, and indeed, contrary to the spirit of Dylan’s music. Instead, Haynes has created a total experience—visual, aural, emotional—that is somehow at once jarring and bewildering, and—miraculously—internally cohesive. A Dylan biopic starring one person and following a traditional story arc would be a reductive disaster, so Haynes has ingeniously found a way out that, while it doesn’t succeed on every level, is a marvel of scholarship and vision. No doubt, Dylan fans will revel in Haynes’ mythmaking. But if you’re a casual fan or not a fan at all—if something is happening here but you don’t know what it is—the proof is still in the pudding. What on earth are you waiting for?