I'M NOT THERE directed by Todd Haynes, written by Haynes and Oren Moverman, with Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin and Ben Whishaw. A Weinstein Group/Alliance release. 135 minutes. Opens Friday (November 30). Rating: NNNN
Todd Haynes takes a fascinating approach to a performer who's survived almost half a century in pop culture by continually changing his mask.
Haynes's impressionistic biography features six separate actors playing versions of Bob Dylan - none named Bob Dylan.
Marcus Carl Franklin plays Dylan as a 12-year-old black child named Woody Guthrie. Christian Bale plays the idealistic folk singer Jack Rollins, and Heath Ledger plays an actor, Robbie, who once played Jack Rollins in a movie.
Ben Whishaw plays Dylan as Arthur Rimbaud, and Richard Gere plays an aging Billy the Kid who wasn't shot by Pat Garrett and ended up in mid-20th-century Missouri.
Cate Blanchett snagged the best actress prize at Venice as Jude Quinn, the coolest Dylan of all, Subterranean Homesick Dylan of the late 60s.
Each Dylan gets his own film in its own style: Woody Guthrie's hobo peregrination through the end days of Eisenhower's America, Jack Rollins's after-the-fact documentary, the dazzling recreation of the black-and-white worlds of Don't Look Back and every other high-end Italian movie of the early 60s.
I've seen the film twice, and the amount of thought that has gone into the elaborate, circular structuring of I'm Not There - there are wheels within wheels within wheels - is staggering. Swiss watchmakers would weep at the precision.
At the same time, it may be a movie that's been overthought. A.O. Scott in the New York Times called it a rebus, and that's accurate. I'm Not There is filmmaking as a form of intellectual puzzle creation.
Haynes is a brilliant filmmaker, but he's also a formalist who keeps emotion at arm's length. I don't think it's an accident that his two most artistically successful films, Safe and Far From Heaven, are anchored by intensely emotional Julianne Moore performances. She gives his films something they don't really have on their own. Moore is here as well, playing "I'm Not Joan Baez."
That detachment was the real problem with Haynes's Velvet Goldmine - you can never figure out where its emotional centre lies.
In I'm Not There, Haynes chooses to treat Dylan's domestic life at about three removes. The Dylan in the segment dealing with this is the one who isn't Dylan but the actor who played him, and Haynes puts Heath Ledger, his most emotionally opaque star, in that role.
Haynes is most comfortable when he has a style to fall into, as when he wallowed in the Douglas Sirk/Russell Metty compositions of Far From Heaven. But the Richard Gere segment of the film, an unsuccessful surrealist Peckinpah-Altman-style western, eludes him. I understand what it's doing there and what it represents in Dylan's career, the whole silence after the motorcycle crash, John Wesley Harding element, but it's stylistically vague. And, despite strong work by Gere, it's unnecessary, save for its completion of the grand circle of the film, its ending bringing us back to the film's beginning.
Haynes could've ended the film on Blanchett's Jude in the limo, talking about traditional music and turning to the camera for a great silent close-up. It's an astonishing moment, a Garbo close-up in the unlikeliest of contexts, undercut by the director's structural need to go on for another five minutes.
But the fact that a film is too long doesn't mean it's not worth seeing. For much of its running time, it's highly entertaining. There's a great performance at its heart, and it's loaded with stylistic dazzle. I'm not sure what it will mean to people who don't like Dylan or know a good deal about him. Part of the pleasure is in the recognition of what Haynes is recreating or referencing.
Speaking of Dylan, the songs are exceptionally well-chosen, and if you don't want to spring for the whole soundtrack, which isn't actually the soundtrack - the Dylan originals are replaced by covers on the soundtrack album - at least download Richie Havens's giddy cover of Tombstone Blues.
There's no film like I'm Not There (though I was reminded of Jorge Luis Borges's famous observation about Citizen Kane that it's a labyrinth without a centre), and we should probably take the title literally. A lot of people are claiming a degree of greatness for I'm Not There that may not be borne out by time, but it's absolutely the smartest movie you're going to see in any multiplex this year.
As puzzles go, it's a lot more fun than sudoku.