So what if nothing is revealed. Todd Haynes is a mischievous visionary who puts the music and the myth of Bob Dylan before us in I’m Not There and dares us not to revel in the troubadour’s poetic, contentious, ever-changing essence. It’s a feast for the eyes, the ears and the Dylanologist scratching around our minds and hearts. And, get this, never once does Haynes mention the name of the mesmeric changeling at his film’s center. There’s no need: Cover versions of Dylan songs occupy the movie like angels and demons doing battle at an exorcism. Not content with just one actor to portray Dylan in the act of inventing and reinventing himself, Haynes hired six and hit the jackpot with Cate Blanchett. She burns through Haynes’ head-trip odyssey like an illuminating torch. Blanchett’s soon-to-be-legendary performance is not a stunt, it’s some kind of miracle. Playing the skinny, androgynous Dylan in his electric years — when his hair stood on end to match his fried nerves — Blanchett extends the possibilities of acting. You won’t see a better example of interpretive art this year by man or woman.
As for the movie itself, don’t hang back with the brutes who dis it as art-house blather. Dylan thought enough of Haynes to give him rights to his music. Haynes is a formalist who likes to experiment, be it queer-world fantasy (Poison), glam rock (Velvet Goldmine), environmental terrorism (Safe) or 1950s melodrama (Far From Heaven). In I’m Not There, form and substance coalesce instead of colliding as they did in Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, when eight actors of assorted age, sex, race and body type played the same pregnant teen. Why not six actors to rep six phases of Dylan’s career, especially with these actors?
Up first is the remarkable Marcus Carl Franklin, 14, Haynes’ inspired choice to portray Dylan as a vagabond black boy named Woody (an hommage to Woody Guthrie). Then there’s British actor Ben Whishaw, dandied up as Arthur in tribute to Dylan’s admiration for the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. The reliably superb Christian Bale gets to manifest two sides of the master, as folk prophet Jack and later the Christian convert Pastor John, revving up the congregation with “Pressing On.” Heath Ledger digs deep into the challenging role of Robbie, an actor who plays Dylan in a movie and whose relationship to the painter Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) mirrors Dylan’s marriage to and divorce from Sarah Lownds. The final section of the movie, and the most problematic in terms of style shock, belongs to Richard Gere as Billy, not just the outlaw Dylan played in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid but the Dylan who went into exile in Woodstock, New York, after his 1966 motorcycle crash. The Gere sequence, opulently produced and featuring an irresistible rendering of “Goin’ to Acapulco” by Jim James, may throw audiences off. But the Fellini-esque circus atmosphere is exactly where the film has been heading all along.
Haynes, who collaborated with Oren Moverman on the deftly intricate script, blends film styles from Jean-Luc Godard to Richard Lester (watch out for an inspired Beatles interlude) to show how far Dylan had to run to escape being pinned down in the lethal glare of public perception. This is never more clear than in the Blanchett segment. Her toking, doping Dylan, named Jude, trades insights with gay poet Allen Ginsberg (David Cross), hits on an Edie Sedgwick-like socialite (Michelle Williams), rages against a prying journalist (Bruce Greenwood) and (surreal alert!) imagines gunning down the folkie audiences at Newport ’65 who booed when Dylan traded acoustic for electric. Even behind shades, Blanchett lets us in close to the trapped escape artist rattling his cage. The film, shot by the great Ed Lachman with a camera eye that misses nothing, produces Dylan himself in the end. But he’s still not there. Such is the talent of Haynes — and the magnificent Blanchett — that chasing Dylan’s shape-shifting shadows becomes an unmissable movie event.