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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Review: I'm Not There (2007)

* * * 1/2

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw

This is how it’s done. Rather than forcing a narrative through-line on someone’s life, Todd Haynes’ fractured, jig-saw puzzle of a movie instead breaks the narrative apart and works to distil the essence of its subject, exploring the various personas of the man commonly known as Bob Dylan. Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, and Ben Wishaw are all on hand, each embodying a different facet of the man and the myth.

The six actors play six different characters (seven, depending on how you gage it): Bale is Jack Rollins, folk protest singer who eventually becomes Father John, the preacher; Ledger is Robbie, an actor who portrays Jack in a film; Franklin is Woody Guthrie, a young musician trying to reconcile those who have influenced him with the time in which he himself is creating; Blanchett is Jude Quinn, a self-consciously quirky star; Gere is Billy the outlaw; and Wishaw is Arthur, who is in the process of being interviewed. These different stories weave in and out of each other, comment on each other and, in some respects, work against each other to highlight the ways that "Bob Dylan" the public figure is ever changing, a series of different personas that have been given the opportunity to take center stage. Not all of these stories are successful - for me, the Billy sections were a little rambling and unfocused and I consistently felt my mind wandering. The film would have worked better, I think, if they’d cut this particular story out entirely.

However, even though I didn’t particularly care for his section of the film, Gere himself is quite good in the role. Billy is the most understated and unaffected of all the central characters, perhaps because he’s the only one who isn’t a direct evocation of Dylan himself but of a figure who inspired him. All of the actors playing facets of Dylan are very good, though Wishaw isn't given the opportunity to show much range in his portrayal. Everyone talks about the performance by Blanchett, and it must be admitted that something magical happens when she appears on screen, perfectly embodying the Dylan of Don’t Look Back, that maddening, self-constructed prophet and eccentric. This section of the film also features Bruce Greenwood as a British reporter who becomes Jude Quinn’s antagonist, seeing through his bullshit and challenging him on it. Greenwood is really great, matching Blanchett blow for blow, and also appears in the Billy sections as Pat Garrett, the man who (supposedly) killed Billy the Kid.

As far as a plot goes, there isn’t really that much to say. It’s an episodic film focusing on bits and pieces of public, private and musical life that are, obviously, reminiscent of or inspired by Dylan’s own life. These moments unfold in different ways, with the Robbie and Jack/John sections being the most straightforwardly told and the Jude, Woody and Billy stories playing out in a more dream-like fashion, surrealist in their construction, while Arthur acts as a connecting figure, a sort of Greek chorus waxing poetic as he’s being interviewed. The music, too, is a way of connecting the stories with the songs not only commenting on what’s going on, but also being used to segue from one story to another.

This is a really inspired film and, like La Vie En Rose, a welcome change of pace from the by the book musical biographies that have come out in the last few years.

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