With I’m Not There, Todd Haynes weaved a surrealistic folklore about the life and times of Bob Dylan

Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There is an underrated classic. It’s my solid belief that this film (along with The Coen Brothers’, Inside Llewelyn Davis) doesn’t receive nearly as much credit as it should. Released in 2007, unfortunately through The Weinstein Company, it’s a fantastic voyeuristic journey into the many personas of the deeply enigmatic Bob Dylan.

It stars Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, and Ben Whishaw as the titular protagonist. It’s a legend of Bob Dylan.

Riddled with homages to Dylan’s famous lyrics throughout, it turns his life into a wild rapid and also, a steady river of cobalt blue you pause to watch. The film offers up an exquisite bouquet of timid meditations of Dylan’s life that somewhat unfreezes you from the paralysis of the ordinary.

Of his film, Haynes famously wrote:

The minute you try to grab hold of Dylan, he’s no longer where he was. He’s like a flame: If you try to hold him in your hand you’ll surely get burned. Dylan’s life of change and constant disappearances and constant transformations makes you yearn to hold him, and to nail him down. And that’s why his fan base is so obsessive, so desirous of finding the truth and the absolutes and the answers to him – things that Dylan will never provide and will only frustrate. … Dylan is difficult and mysterious and evasive and frustrating, and it only makes you identify with him all the more as he skirts identity.

Todd Haynes originally rose to fame for his provocative 1991 film, Poison, which starred Julianne Moore as a woman succumbing to an unknown environmental illness; he gained further acclaim for the phantasmagoric Velvet Goldmine. Haynes is a director who pushes boundaries, both cinematographically and narratively.

I’m Not There came fresh off the heels of Walk the Line, and there isn’t a doubt in my mind both films influenced each other. But with I’m Not There, Haynes was able to exercise his creative muscle in a way that both exudes his unconventional and beautiful filmmaking skills in alignment with Bob Dylan’s life in a way that even delighted the notoriously mysterious Dylan himself. I deeply enjoy Walk the Line, but if I’m grumpy after another day in quarantine, I’m re-watching the beautiful and weird world of I’m Not There before that.

I feel, were it not for the popularity and success of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, which catapulted a strange nostalgia for the post-modern era, I’m Not There might not have had the same box office appeal. However, this could be a reductive statement. The spectacular ensemble cast features Heath Ledger at the apex of his acting career and Cate Blanchett exercising her extraordinary talents as an actor; Richard Gere offers up a deeply underrated performance as Billy the Kid, while Bruce Greenwood stars as his (and Blanchett’s) perfect foil.  

The film is a transient experience, it’s full of lush imagery and even lusher script that feels like the riotous danger of Bob Dylan’s mercurial translations of the world and yet as fragrant and hydrating as his electric touch on the spine of pop culture.

Abby Sheaffer is a featured columnist at Cinema in Paradise. Her past ventures include working as the Editor-in-Chief of Chicago Literati and The Vignette Review. Her other pastimes include writing gothic fiction, gourmet cooking, and adulating the work of Bob Dylan.

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