I'm Not There may be a brilliant myth-making exercise, a fearsome piece of pop art, a truly fascinating film. It may also be a hollow jumble of post-modern pick-up-sticks -- a chaotic stack of signifiers and images and in-jokes with nothing at the heart. Part of me wants to see it again as soon as possible; crack its codes, follow the arcs, catch anything I missed. I also wanted to not see it ever again -- to let it be a dream, a blur, like a few notes of music that find you at an unexpected moment and you hear the rest of your life.
Six actors, six stories "Inspired by the Life and Music of Bob Dylan." Well, even as a casual Dylan fan (or, more specifically, someone with a copy of Desire on vinyl), I think you've got a lot to work with. And director Todd Haynes -- who co-wrote the script with Oren Moverman -- puts a lot on the screen. A young African American rides the rails playing folk music. An arch, overgrown juvenile delinquent gives cryptic answers to unknown questioners. A folksinger who walked away from it all in the '70s. A '60s vision of style itself stalking London. The actor who played the folksinger, once, in a movie, dealing with fame and family. A hippie-cowboy-monk in some never-was Old West.
And all the Dylans -- none of whom are Dylan -- cross and connect and clash. The youngest is played by African American teen Marcus Carl Franklin. British actor Ben Wishaw is next, cryptic and dry. Christian Bale broods and seethes through a mockumentary. Cate Blanchett staggers and swaggers through Don't Look Back re-imagined as a Fellini fever dream. Heath Ledger's actor drifts through a very '70s California break-up with Charlotte Gainsbourg. Richard Gere wanders in a carnival-western cosmos shot through a haze of dust and sunlight. Like the blind men and the elephant, Haynes and his cast fumble at immensity and come back with distortions, misrepresentations, textures.
Some of the film -- a lot of the film -- is unsettlingly literal. It's a trainspotter's film in many ways; I'm sure somewhere a Wikipedia page is being updated right now with specific annotations matching scenes in I'm Not There to the life and the work that inspired it. It's audacious, now and then past the tipping point. Drunk on pop culture, and a very specific vintage, I'm Not There engaged my brain more often than it touched my heart. It's a bit brittle, a bit cold.
And any film that combines fiction and pop music is a risk: The ghosts of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Xanadu hover close overhead as grim warning. I'm Not There is so sleek and stylish as to nearly disappear from sight as you're watching it. But at the same time, you recognize the pleasure of the cleverness -- the gall of looking at one of America's pop cultural icons through a fractured lens and, yes, at the end, bringing it all back home. Now and then I'm Not There feels like an extended, inventive inside joke with a soundtrack to die for.
But it's a good joke to be inside of, and the music is terrific. Blanchett's getting raves for her turn, but I found myself watching Bale -- hardened, strained, tragic, magnetic. And the supporting cast is either baroque and bizarre with David Cross as a bemused Alan Ginsberg, Bruce Greenwood as "Mr. Jones," Michelle Williams as a retro-pop queen -- or careful and quiet, with Charlotte Gainsbourg's sad '70s wife and Julianne Moore as an ex-artist pouring her heart out into a camera drip by drip. There are great one-liners here -- images, words, music -- that leap off the screen and shock you; there are moments that you want to unpeel and dig into. I'm Not There explains itself as "Inspired by the life and music of Bob Dylan," but it's also a chronicle of his times -- a curt, quick assessment of America in the '50s, '60s and '70s made out of the public image and private life and lyrics and music and album art and movies and work of one man. I'm Not There is not Dylan, but it can't be. I'm Not There is art as entertainment, cultural criticism re-written as spooky carnival show, a study of an artist captured from so many perspectives the artist almost disappears; that's no coincidence.