I’m not sure what director Todd Haynes (“Far from Heaven”) is trying to accomplish with “I’m Not There”, his new biography, of sorts, of Bob Dylan.
Different actors each play Dylan, at different points in his life, or maybe they play different aspects of Dylan’s persona. So, we have Cate Blanchett playing “Jude Quinn”, Richard Gere playing “Billy the Kidd”, Ben Whishaw as “Arthur Rimbaud”, Marcus Carl Franklin portraying “Woody Guthrie”, Christian Bale as “Jack Rollins” and Heath Ledger playing “Robbie Clark”. But if each of these actors is playing a different part of Bob Dylan’s life, why do they all have different names? Why is Richard Gere’s “Billy the Kidd” living in 1880s Missouri? Why is a young, black kid playing “Woody Guthrie”. Why is one of the Dylan personas named after a famous poet?
I get Haynes’ idea of having different people playing different parts of the musician’s life; Dylan has had many facets to his persona and his life. But naming each of these personas doesn’t really make any sense.
Cate Blanchett is really the only one who makes an effort to evoke what we know of Dylan. She both looks and acts like our image of the famous singer. Maybe that is Haynes point; we really know very little about the singer – songwriter. But if what he is presenting here is supposed to be factual, in any way, how does Gere’s “Billy the Kid” fit into the picture?
Christian Bale, one of the more interesting actors working in Hollywood today, plays his part of the puzzle that is Bob Dylan, largely through still photographs and concert performances relayed to us through clips in a VH1- style “Where are they now?” type of documentary. He almost never appears on screen long enough to give his character any life.
The film also shifts back and forth between the various characters, shifting our attention back and forth between various times and stages in the subject’s life. This isn’t a bad thing, it just makes us pay more attention to everything, to keep up with the story. And when the story is lacking or meanders, these moments become glaringly obvious.
But what is the story? It’s hard to say. Haynes seems to be trying to create a poem of sorts, shifting back and forth between the various elements, painting little dabs of something here and little dabs of something there. This is an interesting idea, but we never get a fully realized idea of what Haynes is trying to say or depict. So all of the shifting back and forth merely becomes a tiring exercise in trying to keep up with the director. When you finally realize all of this work was for naught, you will probably feel let down.
As let down as I was, because I felt like I had learned nothing new about the icon’s life.
I am all for a filmmaker trying to paint a portrait of a difficult to understand artist, but we are never even sure if that is Haynes’ thesis about Dylan. Is he difficult to understand? Is that why he chooses to show little snippets here and there, using different actors to portray different people who are supposed to be Dylan? I’m not sure. Generally, if a film is attempting to portray a difficult to understand person or theme and goes to these lengths to create this portrayal, the director should at least have a clear vision of what he is trying to accomplish I don’t feel Haynes has this. He seems to be trying to work out what he wants to say as the film rolls. And this just creates confusion.