×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

I’m Not There

Pic resembles a film a precocious grad student in musicology might make about a creative hero.

With:
Jack/Pastor John - Christian Bale Jude - Cate Blanchett Woody - Marcus Carl Franklin Billy - Richard Gere Robbie - Heath Ledger Arthur - Ben Whishaw Claire - Charlotte Gainsbourg Allen Ginsberg - David Cross Journalist - Bruce Greenwood Alice Fabian - Julianne Moore Coco Rivington - Michelle Williams

A densely idiosyncratic, cubist-like cinematic portrait of a man who often calls to mind Bob Dylan, Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” resembles a film a precocious grad student in musicology might make about a creative hero. Stylistically audacious in the way it employs six different actors and assorted visual styles to depict various aspects of the troubadour’s life and career, the film nevertheless lacks a narrative and a center, much like the “ghost” at its core. Dylan fans and ’60s-era pop-culture mavens will constitute pic’s most reliable audience, as mainstream interest will remain unstirred.

Haynes’ unconventional approach to biography was no doubt the reason this became the first project about Dylan’s life anointed by the man himself, who allowed the use of his songs, both in original form and in covers. Dylan’s own taste in cinematic ventures has been questionable over the years, but “I’m Not There” is decisively superior to “Masked & Anonymous.”

As it jumps around in time and explores assorted Dylan personae backed by one of the 20th century’s most impressive greatest-hits collections, “I’m Not There” is never dull and rarely aggravating. Some of Haynes’ most daring ideas — such as having the youthful, Woody Guthrie-idolizing Dylan portrayed by an 11-year-old black boy, and expressing the impact of the Dylan-goes-electric Newport concert by having the singer and his band literally machine-gun the folky audience — come off surprisingly well, and the general let’s-try-this approach is broached in such a genial manner that it encourages the viewer to abandon any preconceptions and follow where Haynes leads.

Such open-mindedness is further spurred by the first “Dylan,” who receives significant screentime. Young Marcus Carl Franklin is charmingly forthright as a guitar-toting kid who, in 1959, rides the rails, ’30s-style, and identifies himself as Guthrie when he doesn’t claim to be Arthur Rimbaud. Little “Woody” is admired for his talent wherever he travels, until he is upbraided one day by a wise lady who admonishes him to “Live in your own time.”

And so he does, materializing in Greenwich Village in the guise of “Jack” (Christian Bale) and taking the progressive music scene by storm with “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” and other early gems.

At this stage, pic begins to fracture itself, for good and ill. Heath Ledger turns up as “Robbie,” a moody actor who stars as a Dylan-like figure in a Hollywood film called “Grain of Sand.” A docu format reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home” takes over to accommodate straight-to-camera interviews with the likes of former intimate Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore), and the verite vein persists in an attempt to explain why Jack cut his ties with the protest movement shortly after JFK’s assassination, around the time Robbie meets painter Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

Getting it on with Claire to the strains of “I Want You,” Robbie, in a charming scene, takes her to the country to pick up a motorcycle, and they eventually marry and have two kids.

The film suddenly jolts to life at the 40-minute mark with the cataclysmic New England Jazz & Folk Festival; not only is the music now plugged in, but the central figure, “Jude,” is impersonated by Cate Blanchett. Scrawny, her eyes often concealed by large shades and topped by a curly mop identical to Dylan’s at the time of “Don’t Look Back,” Blanchett is, appropriately enough, truly electrifying at first; she’s uncannily got down the skittish movements, wary eyes, curt mumble and occasional flashes of brilliance, and comes far closer than anyone else to approximating the Dylan the public knows.

As the performance goes on — it’s by a fair distance the dominant turn in the picture, both in impact and duration — and the character becomes increasingly wigged out by drugs and paranoia, the reliance on mannerisms over psychological depth becomes more apparent. Still, Blanchett’s casting and performance rep a daring coup, and she can now rightly claim to be the only thesp on Earth ever to have been asked to channel both Bob Dylan and Katharine Hepburn, and to have done so successfully.

Jude’s British tour and associated events provide the core and highlight of “I’m Not There,” due to a combination of Blanchett; the encounters with notables such as Allen Ginsberg and the Beatles (in a throwaway, “A Hard Day’s Night”-style gag); the visual elan Haynes and lenser Edward Lachman achieve in black-and-white by subtly segueing in style from D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Lester to the sleeker, swinging-London look of John Schlesinger’s “Darling”; Jude’s seemingly futile pursuit of an elusive Edie Sedgwick-type blonde named Coco (Michelle Williams); his defiance in the face of audience fury at his new sound; and the probings of an intelligent journalist (an excellent Bruce Greenwood), intent upon exposing Jude as a fraud.

Unfortunately, after steadily gaining steam and conviction through its midsection, the film grinds to a virtual halt when it again radically shifts focus to gaze upon “Billy” (Richard Gere), a reclusive mountain man intent upon leaving behind a celebrated and/or notorious past. This interlude clearly reflects not only on Dylan but on Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid,” in which Dylan played a supporting part.

Meant to echo both Peckinpah and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” this unduly protracted section is poorly conceived on every level, as it dramatizes and contributes nothing. Impossible as it no doubt would have been to eliminate a star like Gere from the picture, the end result unquestionably would have been superior without this meandering Western material, for which Haynes seems to have no feel.

Having hit this crossroads and proceeded down the wrong path, pic more or less stumbles the rest of the way, as do the various Dylan incarnations. Only a final, haunting closeup image of the real Dylan in performance brings things fleetingly back to life.

Dylan freaks and scholars will have the most fun with “I’m Not There,” and there will inevitably be innumerable dissertations on the ways Haynes has both reflected and distorted reality, mined and manipulated the biographical record and otherwise had a field day with the essentials, as well as the esoterica, of Dylan’s life. All of this will serve to inflate the film’s significance by ignoring its lack of more general accessibility. In the end, it’s a specialists’ event.

Production looks and sounds great. Montreal-area locations superbly stand in for such diverse settings as the northeastern U.S., London and environs, and Paris, a tribute as well to production designer Judy Becker. Costume designs by John Dunn, along with makeup, hair and assorted accoutrements, provide further crucial period verisimilitude, and the use of Dylan’s music is intelligent and invigorating.

“I’m Not There” may not be all there, but it doubtless provides lots to talk about.

I'm Not There

U.S.-Germany

Production: A Weinstein Co. (in U.S.) release of an Endgame Entertainment, Killer Films, John Wells and John Goldwyn (U.S.) production, a VIP Medienfonds 4 (Germany) production, in association with Rising Star, in association with Grey Water Park Prods. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by James D. Stern, John Sloss, Goldwyn, Christian Vachon. Executive producers, Hengameh Panahi, Philip Elway, Andrea Grosch, Douglas E. Hansen, Wendy Japhet, Steven Soderbergh, Amy J. Kaufman, Wells. Co-producer, Charles Pugliese. Directed by Todd Haynes. Screenplay, Haynes, Oren Moverman; story, Haynes, inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W, widescreen), Edward Lachman; editor, Jay Rabinowitz; music supervisors, Randall Poster, Jim Dunbar; production designer, Judy Becker; art director, Pierre Perrault; costume designer, Jon Dunn; sound (Dolby Digital), Patrick Rousseau; sound designer, Leslie Shatz; special effects supervisor, Louis Craig; visual effects supervisor, Louis Morin; assistant director, Pedro B. Gandol; casting, Laura Rosenthal. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Aug. 31, 2007. (Also in Venice Film Festival -- competing; Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations; New York Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 135 MIN.

With: Jack/Pastor John - Christian Bale Jude - Cate Blanchett Woody - Marcus Carl Franklin Billy - Richard Gere Robbie - Heath Ledger Arthur - Ben Whishaw Claire - Charlotte Gainsbourg Allen Ginsberg - David Cross Journalist - Bruce Greenwood Alice Fabian - Julianne Moore Coco Rivington - Michelle Williams

More Film

  • WGA West Logo

    Writers Guild Sends Hollywood Agents Proposed Code of Conduct

    Leaders of the Writers Guild of America have sent Hollywood talent agencies a proposed “Code of Conduct” with tough new restrictions on how they operate as agents for writer clients. The WGA made the disclosure Thursday night in an email to its 12,000 members, a day after announcing that it will hold a March 25 [...]

  • Best Score Nominee Alexandre Desplat Is

    Best Score Nominee Alexandre Desplat to Skip Oscar Ceremony

    Best score nominee Alexandre Desplat will be unable to attend Sunday’s Oscar ceremonies because of recent throat surgery, a rep for the composer confirms. The French native, already a two-time Oscar winner (for 2014’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” and 2017’s “The Shape of Water”), is nominated this year for his Japanese-flavored score for Wes Anderson’s “Isle [...]

  • Space Jam

    'Space Jam 2' Gets Summer 2021 Release Date

    Warner Bros. has set a July 16, 2021, date for its live-action/animated sports comedy “Space Jam 2,” starring LeBron James. Terence Nance, creator of the HBO show “Random Acts of Flyness,” is directing the sequel. His credits include “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” “Swimming in Your Skin Again,” and “Univitellin.” The movie marks James’ first [...]

  • Gwendoline Christie Star Wars Episode VIII

    Film News Roundup: Gwendoline Christie Joins Jason Segel-Dakota Johnson Drama 'The Friend'

    In today’s film news roundup, Gwendoline Christie is cast in “The Friend,” film preservationist Kevin Brownlow is honored, Demi Moore’s “Corporate Animals” gets sold, and BondIt Media Capital hires a CFO. CASTINGS “Game of Thrones” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” star Gwendoline Christie has joined the cast of “The Friend” starring Jason Segel, Dakota [...]

  • Heather Parry Live Nation

    Heather Parry Fired From Live Nation Productions

    Live Nation Entertainment announced Thursday that Heather Parry will leave the company following a Variety investigation into allegations of workplace bullying. Parry ran Live Nation Productions, the TV and film arm of the touring conglomerate, for three years. In December, Variety reported that Live Nation’s human resources department had been repeatedly warned that Parry was [...]

  • A still from Sea of Shadows

    Sundance Film Review: 'Sea of Shadows'

    It’s a decidedly grim circle of life that moves us all in “Sea of Shadows,” a tight, troubling documentary eco-thriller that charts a compelling course of consequence from Chinese black-market apothecaries to the near-extinction of a rare whale in the Sea of Cortez, hitting on Mexican crime cartels and institutional corruption along the way. Austrian [...]

  • Matt Smith, Thomasin McKenzie Circle Edgar

    Matt Smith, 'Leave No Trace' Star Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie Circle Edgar Wright Movie

    Matt Smith and “Leave No Trace” star Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie are in negotiations to join Edgar Wright’s next film, “Last Night in Soho,” sources tell Variety. Details are vague about the psychological horror movie, other than it being set in London’s Soho district. Anya Taylor Joy is also in the cast. Production is expected to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content