I'm Not There
Reviewed by Nathan Tyree
That Bob Dylan is something of an enigma has long delighted and frustrated his fans. The fact that Dylan himself is the architect of his enigmatic status only heightens both the joy and annoyance felt by his acolytes and detractors both. Bob Dylan, nee Robert Zimmerman: Hobo; apprentice of Woody Guthrie; folk musician; cowboy; electrified rock god; Christian zealot; poet; Rimbaud wannabe; Verlaine wannabe; hipster; recluse; nerd. How much of these personae are real and how much just hype only Dylan himself knows. Now director Todd Haynes, best known for a film about ill-fated crooner Karen Carpenter and another about a fictional version of David Bowie, attempts to unmask the real Dylan by plumbing the depths of the mythical one.
I’m Not There presents a variety of characters inspired by the real Dylan and several imagined ones, including a young boy riding the rails; a folk singer; an actor and an ageing Billy the Kid. Each section of the film has a different actor portraying an alternate universe version of the film’s subject. Much has been made of Kate Blanchett’s portrayal as Jude. She serves as the film’s center, portraying the closest thing the Haynes offers to the real Dylan (whatever real may mean in this convoluted context). Blanchett transforms herself into Bob’s doppelganger. She so convincingly portrays Dylan that it becomes quite easy for the audience to forget that they are watching the woman best known for playing Queen Elizabeth. She quietly assumes his mannerisms and speech patterns to an extent that seems almost preternatural.
Christian Bale, as Jack, has the duty of book ending Dylan’s career in a manner. Jack shows us the effect of change on our hero, portraying the counterfactual Dylan through both his conversion to electricity and Jesus. These two events both sent shockwaves through the fan community, and Bale perfectly exudes the sadness and rage that Dylan must have felt. Bale is currently best known for playing Batman and a vicious serial killer in American Psycho (both characters are sociopaths of sorts) and here chooses a more subtle tone.
The late Heath Ledger plays Robbie, the actor chosen to play Jack in a biopic. Robbie is overwhelmed by sudden fame and seems to crumble under the pressure. Watching the film after Ledger’s untimely death it is impossible not to draw comparisons between the character and the actor. It becomes almost impossible to judge the performance on its own merits (Ledger’s other final role, as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, does not suffer from the same problem, being pure fantasy). One wonders if the sadness sensed under the surface of Robbie’s bluster is truly there, or a product of the viewer’s wishes.
Marcus Carl Franklin plays Woody Guthrie, a young man riding along with hobos and playing his guitar for anyone who will listen. Here Haynes has melded the outright lies Dylan told about his youth with his love of the great American troubadour Guthrie. Franklin, though only a child, shows some real depth and grace. A short cameo by the mighty Richie Havens nearly steals Franklins portion of the film at a first approximation, but on a second viewing it becomes clear that the most fascinating scene is a quiet one with Franklin sharing a meal with a family that has taken him in for a day.
Ben Winshaw portrays Arthur Rimbaud. Arthur is being questioned. We are given to feel that his interrogators may be government agents. We are a bit like Mr. Jones: There is something (sinister) going on here, but we don’t know what it is. Winshaw’s dialogue is largely inspired by Dylan’s frequent refusal to provide his interviewers with anything like a straight answer to even the simplest question. Ben Winshaw is unknown to me, but he has the face of a slightly malnourished cherub. His look and manner are similar to Dylan’s, but in a one off sort of way. It seems, at moments, like he is mimicking Kate Blanchett’s portrayal of Dylan. Given that we notice that Arthur is clearly younger than Jude, we are led in a strange, recursive loop as we try to untangle how these characters are related and how the performances are related.
Richard Gere rounds out the cast as Billy the Kid in repose. Gere has never been much of an actor, known primarily as a pretty boy now well past his sell by date. Here he manages to stretch beyond his usual range (helped greatly by the performance of a dog, which lends pathos). Gere gives us Billy the Kid as he ages (assuming that Henry McCarty wasn’t actually gunned down by Pat Garrett), living a quiet life out of the spotlight.
Any attempt to summarize or dissect the film’s plot would be futile, as this is largely a collection of vignettes chopped up and thrown together in William S. Burroughs cut-up style to create the illusion that a real story is being told. That doesn’t really matter though, as this film is more about style than substance. Haynes shifts visual styles with each character and sometimes changes narrative style mid scene. He cross-pollinates a Cinema Verite look, with documentary inspired graininess and smashes those up against a naturalistic looking American west, then slides into the surreal before dropping to his music video roots. None of this should work. The film should obviously knock the pins out from under itself and collapse. And yet, somehow it holds up. Possibly it is just the quality of the performances given by this fascinating cast. Perhaps it is our innate fascination with the subject. Maybe it’s the incredible soundtrack blowing the best of Dylan out the speakers. Whatever it is, I’m Not There works better than it should.
Haynes doesn’t manage to untangle the mystery of Bob Dylan. In fact, we are left with less understanding of the real man. Yet, for a couple of hours we are able to vanish into Dylan’s world, a world where buckets of tears fall from the sky, and maybe we can, finally, find shelter from the storm.