Ed Harris offers no easy answers in Jackson Pollock bio-pic
Often tackled, rarely mastered, the bio picture most commonly suffers from a preponderance of material and dramatic incident and a dearth of psychological grist. What drove Jackson Pollock's madness? What kept people glued to him despite his increasingly vicious behavior? Many of these questions are left dangling in Ed Harris' directorial debut, Pollock, a film about one of the 20th century's most important and influential artists.
Harris, to his credit, is able to draw us close to Pollock and let us see his vulnerability and peculiar child-like charm. With his ropy, pugilist's body and perpetually furrowed forehead, Pollock is something of a babe in the woods, guided by his wife, Lee Krasner, away from booze and toward his work.
One of the funniest and most poignant scenes in Pollock is of the artist rising in his Long Island bedroom, stumbling down to the kitchen, where Krasner hands him a cup of coffee as he buttons his jacket, shrugs on his hat and performs the quotidian ritual of any working stiff on the way to work. Only in this case the office is a drafty barn not 100 yards from his house, and his work was at the forefront of the abstract expressionist movement that, in the 1940s and '50s, reoriented the art world from Europe to America.
Pollock has become, in cultural legend, not only the consummate American artist for his distinctive painterly technique of dripping paint onto his canvases but for his temperament — the archetypal artist's savage, self-destructive, hell-raising bent that had Pollock dead by age 45 after a night of hard-drinking and fast-driving.
Harris lets his audience know the end is near when Pollock morphs from his wiry bulldog guise to a stubbled, beer-gutted wreck. Definitely an actor's film, Pollock fixates on the thespian's manna: the drunken fugues, pissing in fireplaces at swanky uptown parties, vomit on shirtfronts, sexual promiscuity. By the end of the film, Pollock has transformed from a sinewy, gentle, self-defeating mess into a genuine monster undone by his own demons, who rains "bitch" and "cunt" down on his long-suffering wife with the fury of a gangsta rapper, and only occasionally demonstrates his still-lingering sensitivity as when he stops to pick up a wounded dog from the road and deliver him to a veterinarian.
Pollock essentially begins with the artist's introduction to the woman whose presence defines the dramatic arc of his life, from their first meeting to their ultimate separation, which preceded and, Harris suggests, provoked Pollock's death. A feisty, opinionated Brooklynite who became not only his wife but — like other painters' spouses before her — his staunchest champion, Krasner is genuinely brought to life by Marcia Gay Harden. "You're a damn good woman painter," Pollock initially observes of Krasner, though her promising career quickly withers in the shadow of his swelling reputation and ego. The on-again/off-again cozy/crazed dynamic between the couple is one of the more compelling aspects of a film, which has greater success recreating the circumstances of Pollock's life than plumbing individual psyches.
For its failure to penetrate Pollock's eclectic genius and tormented personality, the film could be called a visionary accomplishment or supreme cop-out. Harris never pretends to offer the "Rosebud" that will make the artist's idiosyncrasies and shortcomings suddenly meaningful. A few clues are offered along the way, such as a palpably tense scene in which Krasner is introduced to Pollock's family at a dinner table surrounded by knitted brows and the sound of scraping silverware. But ultimately Harris presents Pollock as strictly impenetrable, as though this very impenetrability is the defining essence of the man.
Like other bio pictures, Pollock has a built-in novelty value for art world fans for its little historical cameos: a pursed, effete Val Kilmer as Willem de Kooning; Amy Madigan as frumpy, unibrowed Peggy Guggenheim; and underwear model Stephanie Seymour as painter Helen Frankenthaler.
Art historians might roll their eyes at the dramatization of Pollock's "discovery" of the paint dribble, but Harris succeeds nonetheless in conveying the depth of expression in the tangled drizzles of paint that have become Pollock's hallmark. One scene, in which Krasner rounds a corner to catch her first glimpse of an 8-by-20-foot mural (which Harris allows to fill the screen and remain there for the audience to absorb), is nothing short of breathtaking. Perhaps it is there that Harris prefers we look for insight rather than looking to the tight-lipped, emotionally troubled brick of a man who created it.