The troubled life of influential American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock and his marriage to fellow artist Lee Krasner make for absorbing drama in actor Ed Harris’ first stint behind the camera, “Pollock.” While on the surface a highly competent but conventional biopic, the film is distinguished by its quiet, intelligent, admirably restrained approach and by two finely wrought performances from Harris and Marcia Gay Harden in the leading roles. Sony Pictures Classics will need strong critical support to help build a commercial profile with mature arthouse audiences. But given the enduring interest in the subject in the U.S. theatrical release should segue to a long life on cable and video.
Compared to, say, John Maybury’s “Love Is the Devil,” which examined the life of similarly conflicted artist Francis Bacon in a much more impressionistic way, “Pollock” gives limited insight into the factors that transformed the painter into the tormented, self-destructive figure he became. However, this seems due as much to the complex nature of the subject and the perhaps unknown roots of his neuroses as to any failure in the script by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller, which is based on Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s biography “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga.”
Covering the period from 1941 to Pollock’s death in an auto accident in 1956, the drama introduces the struggling painter (Harris) as a man already wrestling with anger and self-doubt, who seeks comfort in the bottle.
Brash and direct, Brooklyn-born Krasner (Harden) drops by Pollock’s Greenwich Village apartment when work by the two is due to appear in the same show and a relationship quickly develops.
Smart enough to realize he’s a major talent, Krasner puts her own work on hold to take the somewhat dazed Pollock’s career in hand. That career gets a lift when Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan) shows Pollock’s work in her Art of This Century gallery.
After marrying in 1945, Pollock and Krasner move to a small Long Island community, where he successfully goes on the wagon, although Pollock remains frustrated with critics’ reluctance to fully embrace his work.
Without warning, while riding high as America’s greatest living artist, Pollock starts hitting the bottle again, causing his work to suffer.
In the film’s slightly abrupt conclusion, his own conflicts drive him deeper into drinking and depression, eventually causing him to lose control behind the wheel of his car.
Harris, himself, has been painting for several years while developing ideas for this film, bringing physical credibility and passion to the exciting scenes in which Pollock’s paintings are created, especially during the artist’s discovery of the drizzle, splash, drip and splatter techniques that became the signature style of his best-known work and prompted his major breakthrough.
Harris has chosen a difficult subject and a difficult role, but the artist never becomes entirely unsympathetic, even at his most brutal. Harris gives a solemn, often moving performance, fully embodying the man’s suffering and frustration, his egotism and hunger for praise and also his conflicted feelings over the debt he feels to Krasner.
As much as being a film about the creative process and the downward spiral of an artist, “Pollock” is also about an extraordinary marriage, with Krasner emerging as an equally fascinating character.
Harden conveys a full, immediate sense of this intense, pragmatic woman from her first scene, shifting between vigilant anxiety and protectiveness during the difficult times, exultant empowerment through Pollock’s years of success and understated despair during his decline.
Standout of the supporting cast is Madigan in an amusing turn as imperious art dowager Guggenheim.
While very much an actors’ piece, the film represents a polished move into directing for Harris even if the fairly straightforward approach employed could benefit from a more distinctive stylistic imprint.
Production values on the pic are solid throughout. Period detail in costumes and sets is efficient without being overly fussy, and lensing by Lisa Rinzler (“Three Seasons”) is similarly clean and unshowy. Jeff Beal’s lovely, string-heavy score provides agile commentary.