A Bob Dylan biopic in which the name "Bob Dylan" is never once uttered, Todd Haynes' I'm Not There is a riddle wrapped in an enigma and sure to be many things to many people. Some will savor the movie's dizzying complexity, others will see it as too much of nothing — and both points of view might not be mutually exclusive in the Haynes-Dylan scheme of things.
It's probably self-defeating to take anything too literally in the impressionistic patchwork of I'm Not There, which is essentially five or six biopics crammed together and fighting it out to see what rises to the surface. Much like Dylan himself, Haynes' enormously unconventional movie revels in contradictions and disguises, opening with its subject splayed out on a slab — maybe dead, maybe not, but in either case, awaiting dissection. The extensive autopsy that follows is as elusive as it is instructive, and it seems to still be in progress after the closing credits have run their course.
"Even his ghost was more than one person," muses one of the movie's many narrators, and I'm Not There follows suit by offering up no less than half a dozen Dylans right off the bat. We get "Woody" (Marcus Carl Franklin), a young black boy accumulating musical chops while hopping trains and telling tales; "Jack Rollins" (Christian Bale), a messianic, finger-pointing folk singer; "Robby Clark" (Heath Ledger), a brooding method actor (whose on-screen roles apparently include the "Jack Rollins" folkie-Dylan); "Quinn" (Cate Blanchett), the zonked-out electric rocker/provocateur; "Arthur" (Ben Whishaw), the Rimbaud-like poet who comments on the proceedings; and "Billy" (Richard Gere), a grizzled hermit with a shady past — he might be Billy the Kid a hundred years ago, lying low in some pre-industrial frontier town (albeit one seasoned with surreal, circus-like flourishes).
The idea of multiple actors playing aspects of a single protagonist isn't unique to I'm Not There — Buñuel famously turned the trick back in 1977 with That Obscure Object of Desire, and Todd Solondz managed a similar conceit just recently in Palindromes — but the concept is a near-perfect fit with Dylan, an escape artist who's successfully re-invented himself more often than anyone this side of Bowie. The mini-army of quasi/crypto/ersatz Bobs weave around and through each other's lives, as images from Dylan's extensive mythology, both real and fabricated, pile up and smash into each other. The movie barrages us with competing accounts, until separating the truth from legend eventually begins to seem completely beside the point.
The true lies reach critical mass as the film's densely layered narrative expands and contracts in all directions, accompanied by some of the best music ever (from "Ballad of a Thin Man" to "Positively Fourth Street," it's all here). On one of its many levels, the movie seizes on our collective perceptions of the famous singer's life and amplifies them even as it turns them on their head, as when Dylan's born-again phase becomes an alternate reality in which folk legend "Jack Rollins" gives up music altogether for a life preaching the gospel. And then, in a flash, I'm Not There is telling us, again, that maybe that's not how it was after all.
The movie's aesthetics are as inventive as they are all over the map, commandeering the whole of '60s pop culture in which Dylan was so instrumental. One moment the film is aping Richard Lester aping the French New Wave as electric Blanchett cavorts with the Fab Four in the swinging England of A Hard Day's Night; the next moment it's channeling 8 1/2-era Fellini as the camera tracks past a gallery of grotesques gliding along to ethereal Nino Rota music. Unsurprisingly, the movie never sticks with one style for too long, and for every raw, provocative sequence, there's a lovely, graceful moment like the one in which the young "Woody" manifestation is swallowed whole by a whale — part Biblical Jonah but mostly storybook Pinocchio, a little wooden Dylan-puppet longing to be a real boy.
I'm Not There claims to be "inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan," and while it's as faithless to the particulars of Dylan's life as it is faithful, the film's elegantly fractured narrative nails the essence of its subject. I suspect that Haynes' high-concept experiment will outrage its share of viewers, hardcore Dylan fans not excluded, but I can't imagine anyone not admiring it on at least one basic level: It takes major balls to deconstruct a public figure who's been deconstructing himself for as long as anyone can remember. I'm Not There embraces its contradictions with style and turns them into art, shattering its subject into subatomic particles and daring us to pick up the pieces.
But wait — there's more. Also opening this week is the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, a movie that is utterly different from I'm Not There in almost every important way, except one: Both of these films are among the very best released this year.
Much has been made of No Country for Old Men being some sort of contemporary Western, maybe even part of an ongoing revival of the form recently initiated by 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But Joel and Ethan Coen are notorious pillagers and inverters of genres, and you can bet that when they do a "Western," the movie's going to scream out for those quotation marks.
As it happens, the characters in No Country for Old Men do wear cowboy hats and carry guns — one or two of them even get on a horse from time to time — but any resemblance to traditional or even so-called "revisionist Westerns" ends there. The Coens' new film is something else entirely, an expertly crafted nail-biter steeped in the beloved noir the brothers have repeatedly tinkered with, beginning with Blood Simple and extending through Miller's Crossing and beyond. Oh, and you'd better know up front that there's more than a little Silence of the Lambs in here as well, complete with one of the cinema's most memorable serial killers and some pretty serious bloodletting.
No Country for Old Men takes place in a dusty Texas wasteland dotted with the rusty shells of abandoned cars and as redolent with alienation as a vintage Antonioni landscape. Enter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a certified piece of trailer trash who happens upon a drug deal gone south and winds up fleeing the scene of the crime with a cash-filled briefcase. This inevitably puts some very bad people on Llewelyn's trail — chief among them, a soulless super-psycho named Anton Chigurh (an exquisitely chilling Javier Bardem), who sports a Chocolate Watchband bowl-cut and lugs around a fetish-object-as-weapon in the form of one of those air guns used to kill cows. Right behind both of them is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a small town lawman resigned to the nasty ways of the world but doing all he can to avoid a confrontation with it.
Based on Cormac McCarthy's novel, No Country for Old Men is a beautifully modulated film, folding intense bursts of periodic violence into a carefully orchestrated atmosphere of mounting tension that is both eerily poetic and a bit melancholy in the manner of a vintage Graham Greene espionage thriller. For all the blood and guts, this is a remarkably restrained movie, almost completely devoid of the flamboyant tricks and absurdities commonly associated with Coens. The tone here is downright somber, icy even, to the point where the film is unlikely to change the mind of anyone who already finds the Coens somehow lacking in empathy for the human race.
That said, this is great stuff. In its elegantly world-weary way, No Country for Old Men is as iconic a chase film as The Night of the Hunter, as deeply mysterious as the Coens' masterpiece, Barton Fink, and not without perverse grace notes all its own. The film builds suspense beautifully before repeatedly pulling the rug out from under us; it gives us a classic monster in Bardem's Chigurh (his creepiest turn since Perdita Durango); and its use of sound is simply masterful (long sequences unfold in total silence, save for the sound of a doorknob turning or a light being flicked on). The Coen Brothers' No Country is a welcome surprise late in the movie-going season, and, like Dylan's John Wesley Harding, seems almost incapable of making a foolish move.