The film presents six intertwined vignettes of six different versions of Dylan. A couple of them are based on his public personas.
Heath Ledger plays Dylan the star -- Robbie Clark -- and Cate Blanchett is the mainstream sell-out Jude Quinn, who has unrepentantly alienated his/her folk fans. A couple are based on hazy, often surreal interpretations of Dylan's influences and psyche. Franklin is Dylan's adventure-seeking blues-loving earnestness, which goes by the name of Woody Guthrie; Richard Gere plays Dylan's feelings of misunderstanding and antagonism in the character of Billy the Kid -- the two representing Dylan's innocence, essentially, and his ruination at the hands of the world. The rest are a combination of Dylan's public life and private mind: Ben Whishaw as the drunken, disaffected poet Arthur Rimbaud, Christian Bale as destroyed star and born-again preacher Jack Rollins.
Obviously, anyone expecting a dramatized version of No Direction Home is going to be disappointed (though Julianne Moore is hilarious playing a character inspired by Joan Baez' gauzy, detached interviews from Martin Scorsese's Dylan documentary). I'm Not There contains only a few elements of biopic, with historical context beaming, sometimes intrusively from television screens.
Instead, the images of war and tragedy and history that flicker across small screens throughout the film, are representations of the things people of conscience wanted Dylan to consume himself with. Some of these images strike a chord in him, most don't, and therein lies the source of the great liberal consternation with Dylan. The heart of Dylan's presumed self-absorption, Haynes understands, is his inability to play-act fervor for things that don't move him. The counterculture wanted him to be their champion. All he wanted to be, Haynes believes, was a man.
That reading, of course, ignores the fact that Dylan took the spotlight of his own accord. Willfully and jubilantly. It's more apt to say that, having taken up the mantle initially, having had his manhood subsumed under a culture-wide myth-figure status, he shrunk from the pressure of expectation that generated, spending the rest of his life from that point trying to find a way back.
It's the post-fame interplay Haynes is concerned with, the myth-figure of Dylan -- the representation of an ideal that everyone in the culture gets to imbue with whatever characteristics best fit their worldview -- fueling the jerky narrative and vibrant surrealism of Haynes' film. Dylan, the man (the two men and a woman rather) is usually rendered in black and white, looking pissed off at his reception, trying to get out.
Haynes does brilliant work with Dylan's music, conjuring intense feelings three separate times with just a song and scenes set like visual poems. One -- in which a casket carrying a young woman's corpse is presented to a carnivalesque assemblage while singer Jim James (looking like a bedraggled miner in a Civil War uniform and a face painted white as a sheet) performs "Going to Acapulco" as a lament over guitar and trumpets -- seized me with fear and left me with tears in my eyes.
"It's a fierce, heavy feeling thinking that something is expected of you," Dylan says. Fierce and heavy, yes. And now we have Haynes' vision -- representational, uneven, synesthetic and frustrating too -- but absolutely worth the work it takes. n (Rated R)