Director/co-writer Todd Haynes isn't making a linear portrait of an artist with "I'm Not There;" instead, the filmmaker breaks down the concrete barriers of drama, stealing cues from the poetry of Dylan's music to weave something together that, if not tracking the singer's history beat by beat, attempts to encompass his legend through ostentatious exhibitions of visual and performance art.
Dylan's story is told through six actors (Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Ben Wishshaw, and Marcus Carl Franklin); each talent absorbing a moment in Dylan's life, from his roots as a folk hero to the latter years of marital discord and status as a legendary outlaw. The film pole vaults between eras and ages (even race, as embodied by young African-American actor Franklin), unconcerned with assembling the minutiae of Dylan's life; instead, expressing the breadth of his personality and bitter distaste for expectations.
This is not an easy film to explain or contain; Haynes is throwing a Hail Mary pass with this picture, constructing a valentine to a complex man who only recently has eased into the idea of confronting his life and times. Perhaps to combat the expectations of a bio-pic, Haynes takes "I'm Not There" into feral directions, furiously scraping away decades of caked-on legend to uncover the essentials of Dylan's mind and soul. The film still adheres to the requirement of historical touchstones (going electric, the motorcycle accident, an affair with Edie Sedgwick, and his born-again Christianity), but Haynes only handles these moments as his headlights, spending the rest of the picture wrestling with Dylan's impish behavior, his psychological battlefield, and love of pseudonyms (the Dylan name is never uttered during the picture).
Shot with various film stocks and alternating between color and B&W, "I'm Not There" is impressive in scope and determination not to adhere to the rules. The film delights in the sights and sounds of the 60s, where folk music was in a desperate hunt to change the world; the media using (abusing) Dylan as the movement's spokesman, in effect curdling his soul with ridiculous political expectations. That very befuddlement is the centerpiece of the movie, with Blanchett delivering an extraordinary performance as mid-60s Dylan, caught between the poison of celebrity and the pressures of the music business to conform and sell-out.
There are not enough adjectives in the book to describe the magic that Blanchett weaves here. An actress incapable of a false moment, she tucks her femininity under a curly wig, perfects the "groovy man" slouch, and affixes what becomes a constant rotation of cigarettes to her fingers: literally becoming Dylan. The rest of the cast have their own interpretational mountains to climb (Ledger, as "Infidelity Dylan," can't quite find a suitable pulse), but Blanchett is miraculous. Her segments of the movie carry the most pathos and screen energy, poured like succulent gravy all over the picture. It's now confirmed there's absolutely nothing Blanchett can't play. She's more Dylan than Dylan ever was.
"I'm Not There" is overwhelmingly challenging cinema, remaining aloof and unpredictable throughout much of its overlong 135-minute running time. It's also not a primer for Dylan newcomers; tender senses might be put off by this collection of visual non sequiturs and interpretational jazz. It's not always the roundhouse punch of euphoria it thinks it is, but "I'm Not There" remains a psychedelic curiosity that does the myth and reluctance of Dylan proud.