This is a hard one to describe. It’s a metaphoric retelling of Bob Dylan’s life, but none of the characters in it are called Bob Dylan. Most of them don’t look like Dylan, and the one who most looks like Dylan is a woman. It’s a long, strange trip down memory lane with one of the most enigmatic characters of the 20th century.
Director Todd Haynes has assembled an all star cast to embody different segments of the folk singer’s life. When we first meet the Dylan character he is portrayed by a 13-year-old African-American child (Marcus Carl Franklin) obsessed with folk music. Later he’s glimpsed in his Pat Garret and Billy the Kid stage, played in that sequence by Richard Gere. British actor Ben Whishaw punctuates the proceedings, popping up now and again spouting the kind of elliptical nonsense that often make Dylan’s interviews an exercise in frustration.
Cate Blanchett is deservedly being touted for an Oscar nomination—will it be Best Actor or Actress?—for her take on the caustic, amphetamine-fueled Dylan circa 1965. In one of the more literal sequences Batman portrayer Christian Bale is Jack, a folk singer who embraces Christianity, eschewing the life of a music star to become an evangelist.
A bit murkier is Heath Ledger’s story thread featuring him as a chauvinistic movie star with a mysterious French girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
How does it all relate to Dylan, the mumbling superstar who has made a career of keeping people guessing about his personal life? It’s hard to say, because as you may have guessed the movie isn’t a traditional biopic. What Haynes has done here is create a kind of tone poem using different elements from Dylan’s life to create an overall feel for this mysterious and elliptical character.
Unlike Walk the Line or Ray, which were both standard issue Hollywood biopics, I’m Not There doesn’t offer up an obvious timeline of the man’s life. There is nothing linear here, or even connected in many cases. Using a variety of styles from Warholian Pop Art to Godard’s jump-cuts and cinéma vérité, Haynes has cobbled together a portrait of the essence of Dylan. There is nothing straightforward about the man, so there should be nothing straightforward about the movie. It’s fascinating stuff, and while some may find it frustrating, I felt I knew more about what makes Bob Dylan tick when I walked out of the theatre after I’m Not There than I did for Johnny Cash following Walk the Line or Ray Charles after Ray.
At almost three hours it’s a taxing movie, but for the patient, the adventurous and the curious I’m Not There offers many pleasures from the amazing soundtrack to Cate Blanchett’s superior performance.