"I'm Not There" is an attempt to consider the contradictions of Bob Dylan by building itself upon contradictions. Maybe that's the only way to do it. If you made a biopic with Dylan played by the same actor all the way through, it might become the portrait of a shape-shifting schizophrenic. Todd Haynes' approach is to create six or seven Dylans, depending on how you count, and use six actors to play them. This way, each Dylan is consistent on his own terms, and the life as a whole need not hold together.
There are so many Bob Dylans that it is difficult to sort out which ones you admire, and which you despise. I spent years disliking Dylan on the basis of the 1967 D.A. Pennebaker documentary "Don't Look Back," and then underwent a conversion after seeing Martin Scorsese's 2005 doc "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan." But what was either film but the portrait of a possible Dylan? No considerable artist since B. Traven has spent more effort concealing his tracks and covering his trail, and at the end of the day, we are left with the music, which is all the artist really owes us.
If you are not much familiar with Dylan, this film is likely to confuse or baffle. If, like me, you know both of the documentaries well, have read some of the legends, seen him in concert and have been colonized by some of his songs, you are likely to respond with a wry admiration for the enormous risks Todd Haynes has taken here. Like his very different previous film, "Far from Heaven," he is essentially remaking cinema to reveal what it is really trying and achieving. "Far From Heaven" exposed the gay subtext of Douglas Sirk's 1950s melodramas, and "I'm Not There" shows how the other docs of Dylan have imposed consistency upon an elusive and mercurial person. What Haynes does is take away the reassuring segues that argue everything flows and makes sense, and to show what's really chaos under the skin of the film.
He achieves that here by casting six actors as in the role of Bob Dylan (real name Robert Allen Zimmerman, so the disguises begin before the movie). One of the actors is a young African-American boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) who claims to be Woody Guthrie; a second is Jack, a Greenwich Village folk singer (Christian Bale); a third is Robbie (Heath Ledger), appearing in a Hollywood film, who settles down, gets married and has kids; a fourth is Jude (Cate Blanchett), a hero who alienated his fans by switching from acoustic to electric guitar and from folk to folk rock; a fifth is an actor (Richard Gere) appearing in a Western about Billy the Kid; a sixth is a Dylan (Ben Whishaw) submitting to a contentious interview about his career, and then we double back again to Christian Bale, who plays either a seventh or a transformation of the first, Pastor Jack, a born-again Christian.