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Pollock could have been a bad movie in so many different ways. It could have been overblown or overly reverent, or the reverse, cynical and determined to humanize its subject at all costs. Itís none of these things. In his directorial debut, actor Ed Harris took a big risk in giving us the full spectrum of a man whose parts donít harmonize neatly into a package we can understand. His portrayal of Jackson Pollock, one of the giants of twentieth century art, is as inexplicable, dense, and oddly beautiful as the drip paintings for which he is so famous. Neither disappearing into the role nor shaping it around himself, Harris becomes Pollockís accomplice, establishing with his audience the same complex, messy relationship Pollock had with his wife, the artist Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden). Like Krasner, we know we are in the presence of a strange creative force, one that we cannot fully know but whose tireless energy and amazing output inspires us to hold on for the long bumpy ride ahead.

The screenplay, adapted by Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller from Steven Naifeh's biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, essentially splits Pollockís life into two parts, his rise and his descent. The first part takes up the majority of the movie, and through it we learn how Pollock and Krasner met when he was still living in a squalid Greenwich Village apartment and how they formed a partnership that slowly turned into something like love. Their first sexual encounter is a long, wordless scene filmed almost completely in shadows (cinematographer Lisa Rinzler delivers some of the yearís best photography). They slowly remove each others clothes, but scarcely look at each other. Already, they are fascinated only with the idea of the other person. Pollock soon captures the attention of art patron Peggy Guggenheim (the hilarious Amy Madigan) who endures his drunkenness because she might be attracted to this hulking, t-shirt clad monster. She commissions a mural for her Upper East Side apartment, which Pollock produces in a single night of frenzied work. Dodging and pacing around his canvas like a boxer, heís primal and physical, a macho artist who confronts, almost attacks his work. His hands perpetually covered in paint, like a second skin, Harris immerses himself in every brushstroke: those are really his paintings we see, not Pollockís. Their similarity to the real thing is the fruit of Harrisí arduous preparation for the role.

As Pollock steadily ascends the New York art scene, he and Krasner move out of their apartment and into a rustic estate in Long Islandís East Hampton. With their move, the movie slides out of its edgy, urban feistiness and into something quieter and domestic. Pollock trades in his beloved whiskey for beer, throws himself full throttle into his work, and even yearns to start a family with Krasner. He makes friends with the local convenience store owner and uses his paintings to pay for groceries. In one emblematic scene, Pollock rides home from the store on his bicycle with a crate full of beer bottles balanced on the handlebars. Unable to resist a drink, he manages to open one and takes a few swills until he decides to wave to a passing neighbor, causing everything to crash anticlimactically to the ground. In a way, Pollockís life is an accident in waiting. Balancing marriage, art and booze, he is headed for a conclusion that surprises us only in how long he takes to get there.

Krasnerís no fool; she sees how Pollock mentally abuses her, how he takes advantage of her forgiveness. More than just a suffering cheerleader, Krasner, like Hillary Clinton, sees through the infidelities to the genius and willingly sidelines her own promising talent. In one of the best female performances of the year, Marcia Gay Harden plays Krasner like a tough career girl who knows emotional pain and has learned how to tuck it away. She becomes the guiding force in Pollockís life and work serving as art critic and caretaker. She knows Pollock well, better perhaps than he knows himself. When he insists that they have a baby, she knows itís just the macho Pollock trying to put her in her place, and when he threatens her with violence, she puts him in his place, yelling back with equal intensity. "You need, need, need, need, need," she shouts with just the right amount of hysteria and resignation.

The second part of the movie, spanning Pollockís personal and professional decline, plays like a morose postscript, taking us from his separation from Krasner to his affair with young bombshell Ruth Kligman (Jennifer Connelly) and to his untimely death in a car accident. Bearded and pot-bellied, Pollock walks about in an alcohol-fueled daze, refusing to paint, no longer willing to put up with the art world sycophants who desire his company. Harrisí transformation, like Robert DeNiroís in Raging Bull, jolts us with its suddenness and totality; we feel the depths to which Pollock has sunk. As he reads a letter from the estranged Krasner, the camera pulls back and zooms in at the same time, creating a weird, disorienting headrush. Itís one of the few scenes in which Harris goes inside Pollockís mind, recreating for us the sense of bewilderment he feels when his life stopped making sense. The rest of the movie, especially the final scene, keeps its distance from Pollock. Loath to psychoanalyze, Harris takes a journalistic approach that presents the facts and leaves us to draw the conclusions. We may not know who Pollock is at the end, but we have enough evidence to piece together a vastly complex and intriguing human being.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Sony Pictures Classics
Movie Web site: Pollock



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