In I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes takes the stale, conventional music biopic and runs it through a blender. The film claims to be inspired by the life and music of Bob Dylan, and features six different performers, including Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Cat Blanchett as Dylanesque figures (none is actually named Bob Dylan). But one needn’t be a Dylanologist, or even more than a casual fan to wonder at the fantastic concoction he’s whipped up.
Gone are the genre’s usual forms. The familiar arcs of talent, love, addiction, stardom, and redemption that played out in Great Balls of Fire, Ray, and Walk the Line are nowhere to be found, and holiday audiences looking for those familiar patterns will almost certainly be confused and disappointed. Haynes doesn’t just dismiss the clichés; he seems unaware of them, as if he’s inventing everything in the film for the first time.
That’s not to say one can’t spot his influences. Haynes pulls from the fragmented narratives of Bunuel, the feverish and foggy visions of Fellini, and the cinematic playfulness of Godard. Haynes is a fussy formalist, mimicking a dozen or more distinct and easily identifiable styles throughout the film, but his grand scheme embraces a dreamlike expressionism. This isn’t a film about the life of Bob Dylan so much as a rock film fantasia, like Alice in Wonderland as reimagined by Hunter S. Thompson.
Much of the movie’s buzz has centered on the casting, especially Blanchett’s. And indeed, she’s remarkable in her role as Jude, a Dylanish ‘60’s rock hero given to rash behavior and elliptical pronouncements. She provides one point on the ever-spinning Dylan pinwheel, a dazzling array of characters. Between the manic stylistic riffing and the hall-of-mirrors approach to the central figure, Haynes seems to be gesturing toward the fluidity of identity in the media age, where the idea of the self has become fragmented and illusory, polluted by cross-talk and competing personae.
If this sounds a little murky, that’s because it is, but it’s also often exhilarating, and to ask for too much clarity would probably be a mistake. Any movie seeking to capture the essence of Bob Dylan that’s easy and simple to understand is almost certainly doomed to fail.