The latest film from the director of Safe and Far From Heaven is a pretentious, ridiculous, incoherent, babbling mess. Impossible to categorize and almost as difficult to endure, its very existence is damn near an act of war; a hostile gesture against each and every audience member who dares slip into a screening. Despite all this — hell, because of it — I loved it; every pompous, appalling, maddening moment of it. After all, the title tells the tale. This is a 135-minute regurgitation of the only real truth it seeks to tell: Bob Dylan does not exist. Not as a man, or even an icon. Whatever that name implies, the reality is the very opposite. As such, the film is everything and nothing. A negation and a furtive stab at established fact. An empty shell and the most revealing portrait of celebrity ever released. If I think too much about the matter, it might not even be about Dylan at all. Because the movie is packed with wall-to-wall music, it helps to be a fan, though I’m increasingly less sure that it’s essential. Sure, the unaware will miss allusions, symbols, career points, and even the occasional dropped line, but this could just as easily be the story of Elvis, John Lennon, or Frank Sinatra. The details would change, of course, but not the ultimate desire. After decades of dull, conventional narratives and highlight reels passing for biographies, what a fucking hard-on it is to be surrounded by an ethereal soup that dares you to bolt for the exits. It’s a mixed-up grab bag of sight, sound, myth, and falsehood, and yet by the end, it’s one of the most honest slabs of cinema I’ve seen all year.
Everything you hear about it is true: “Dylan” is played by many different actors, including Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Ben Whishaw, and yes, even Cate Blanchett. At one point, he’s even portrayed by a black kid who calls himself Woody Guthrie. Yes, it’s a self-conscious gimmick, but it never tries to be anything else. The actors are meant to be Dylan at various stages of his life and career, but even that explanation seems too pat. Quite simply, the presence, absence, and recurrence of these actors speaks mainly to the pointlessness of trying to find a real man underneath the façade. And what is the point, then? Was Dylan a poet, a preacher, or a genuine voice for the working man? Did he define a decade and betray it in turn? Are the reinventions conscious, or simply the projections of a fickle audience? There may or may not be an answer, and you’re just as likely a fool for trying. And whenever Bruce Greenwood appears — attacking, slashing, filled with accusations — the film confirms what we’ve long suspected: this Robert Zimmerman kid is a colossal fraud. And he’s always known it. Or maybe he merely suspects that a privileged Jewish boy from the Midwest has no business speaking any form of truth to power, and that when the ride comes to an end, he’ll be left bereft; a man without a message. All that and more, Haynes’ film dares us to consider what becomes of the self-proclaimed genius who outlives his time, only to redefine the times and reinvent the past. Whatever the case, no review could do it justice. Check it out, let it wash over you, and don’t come calling when it’s over. Your guess is as good as mine.