TELLURIDE, Colo. -- First impression, written furiously as mountain thunder crackles in the distance:
I'm Not There is a chase movie, and it plays like the lovechild of Cameron Crowe (the music worshipper) and David Lynch (master of splintering the psyche).
No one in the movie plays a character named Bob Dylan, but they all play physical and/or emotional representations of Dylan. Christian Bale plays a folk music hero, Heath Ledger plays the actor who plays the folk music hero in a film, Cate Blanchett plays a folk music hero who goes "electric" and alienates his fan base. Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid. Ben Whishaw plays a "poet" named Arthur Rimbaud who is under interrogation. The overly charismatic preteen Marcus Carl Franklin plays a boy named Woody Guthrie who's trainhopping away from a troubled childhood.
All these characters add up to the essence of Dylan as he changed over his career, and they are all running from something. In this way, I'm Not There is a chase movie. It's about men who are constantly trying to outrun fame, the media, conformity, themselves, their loves, the law and so on. They are trying to excuse themselves from their current reality. Look at the title.
Blanchett arrives late and owns the movie. She and Bale play the pre- and post-electric Dylan, but Blanchett is the axis on which the film spins. She is a joy to watch. She looks and acts like Dylan. There is little artifice. It is fascinating. Why did Todd Haynes want a woman in the part? I don't know. But it works as a ballsy experiment, and Blanchett proves she can pull off absolutely anything.
The movie jumps back and forth between narratives and time periods (think Velvet Goldmine) that are connected by music and images and feelings and tones. It's a pastiche, a four-dimensional quilt. It is a wildly ambitious, verbose, confusing movie with an epic goal: to understand a character, and his place within and without his generation, and then to subvert that understanding with more questions than answers. For better or worse, I'm Not There is a movie that needs to be studied. It has many apparent intricacies. If you want to compare it to bedding, it has a very high thread count. It glows with the same kind of thick, beautiful vagueness as Lynch's Mulholland Dr. does. We have the pieces of the puzzle and we have some idea of how to assemble them, but once we do we don't get a definitive picture. Rather, we're left with colors and patterns and moods and tones and suspicions. Can it be assembled in more way than one? Or should it just be appreciated in its parts?
The bottom line: Telluride reaction is mixed. As tired as I was, I didn't nod off -- even as it dragged laboriously and wrecklessly into its third hour. Haynes' sweat is very visible. The screenplay is a feat. There were moments of transcendence, though -- moments when I was utterly thankful for Haynes' vision and ambition. I need to see the movie again in order to understand if it truly extends beyond its experimental nature, but I can say this for sure: This is Haynes' magnum opus. And even if you hit the wall at minute 120, it's worth sticking with until the end, which features cinema's sweetest, slowest fade out ever.