Todd Haynes deserves props for thinking of a new way to do a biographical motion picture, even if I'm Not There isn't completely successful.
The standard system for biopics is to do a roughly chronological set of scenes detailing the highlights of someone's life, and then add some uplifting string music to make it seem like this person is not only Important, but also that his or her life is Moving and Necessary.
But Haynes has tried something so completely different that it's almost not a biopic. Instead of showing the various important events in Bob Dylan's life (Yes, it's about Bob Dylan ... but!), Haynes has created six characters loosely based on various parts of Dylan's life. These characters occasionally interact, mostly lead separate lives and all seem to live in the same world, though it's a world as seen by a half-dozen different drug-addled documentarians with magic cameras and super-powered eyeballs.
First up is "Woody Guthrie," who represents a young Dylan, sort of crossed with Woody Guthrie, and is played by a 12-year-old African American (Marcus Carl Franklin). The film starts with him hopping a freight train where, as is usual upon hopping a freight train, he befriends two elderly hoboes. As he rides through a verdant South, he speaks in a 1930s patois and sings songs about the union, even though, according to the hoboes, it's 1959, and everybody's already unionized. But when he stops in a sleepy Missouri town to spend the night with some kindly folk, he gets a piece of advice: Sing about your own time!
This is the thematic crux of the film: people telling the Dylan avatars what to be and what to do. The next incarnation of Dylan is folk-singer Jack Rollins (perhaps with a nod to Ramblin' Jack Elliott), who does, indeed, sing about his own time, creating what he calls "finger-pointing songs," and what people who aren't so pretentious call "protest songs." Rollins is played with a jerky, shy, Dylanesque twitch by Christian Bale, who, when he's not being Batman, is actually a brilliant actor.
But, of course, finger-pointing songs have the problem of people not liking having the finger pointed at them. So this creates another persona, Jude Quinn, ex-folk singer and current rock star, who spends the late 1960s driving around England re-creating scenes from Don't Look Back. Cate Blanchett is freakishly apt as a Dylan avatar, but these sequences start to drag a bit, especially if you've already seen the movie that the life is based on. However, there are some impressive sequences with Bruce Greenwood, truly one of the greatest unsung actors of this or any period, playing Keenan Jones, a BBC interviewer who harasses and unmasks Jude Quinn.
Slightly less appealing are the scenes featuring Heath Ledger as Robbie Clark, an actor who played Jack Rollins in a biopic in the early '60s. It's layers upon layers here, as Clark is also an avatar of Dylan, living out Dylan's domestic misfortunes with Charlotte Gainsbourg as his wife, though she doesn't seem to be based on Dylan's actual wife, Sara Lownds. Rather, she seems more to be based on the part of Dylan who wanted to be an artist, with Ledger playing the part of Dylan that became a star. So it's sort of like Dylan, who became Dylan by playing the part of Dylan in a movie, married to Dylan.
Finally, there's Richard Gere as Billy the Kid, an outlaw in hiding. The fun bit here is that Greenwood, who played the gadfly to rock-star-Dylan-avatar Jude Quinn, here plays Pat Garrett, the man who claimed to have killed Billy the Kid. Gere is kind of annoying, and this sequence is the weakest of all, and probably should have just been cut, but if you look closely, it has some of the more amusing small touches.
Throughout, there are comments from Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), Dylan's poet-persona. Whishaw is startlingly good here, giving the most Dylanesque of the many Dylanesque performances, but he has no narrative to work with, and these pieces seem extraneous.
There's something compelling about the idea that a person isn't singular, and that someone like Dylan would necessarily be fractured, as fame reframes him into what his public, the press and those around him wanted him to be.
The cinematography is so varied that it really looks as though a half-dozen filmmakers worked together to create this movie. And it's not only worth watching; much of it is worth watching over again. However, Haynes might have done better to trim out the less-successful Gere sequence and to at least shorten the overly long Ledger storyline.
These would be small complaints, but they turn an otherwise brilliant film into an at-times mediocre one. Still, what Haynes has done is, overall, remarkable. The recurrent themes are carefully handled: Dylan is urged to sing about his times, harassed for singing about his times and booed for ceasing to sing about his times; the ways in which celebrities are created as much by the gaze of others as by themselves; and the nature of personal transformation (especially well-represented by Bale's work). The possibility that selves are, already, multiple, are all presented in a purely cinematic fashion, with no need for expository dialogue--which is impressive, because what Haynes has produced is almost a treatise, and at no point does he hit you over the head with it. It's up to the audience to read it out, and in the process, you'll see some stunning visuals and performances, and maybe a few boring bits, but really, if you're not willing to put up with a few boring bits, you might as well just have yourself wired to your PS3.
Which could also be fun. No judgments.