Ed Harris is no stranger to tormented, booze- and nicotine-saturated characters. He gave a riveting reading as a shell-shocked Vietnam War veteran opposite Robert De Niro in 1989’s Jackknife. The press and the public criminally neglected both the film and his performance. But now he is back with a vengeance—addictions intact—as tormented abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. This time Harris’ muscular dance with inner demons has not gone unnoticed: he’s earned himself a best actor Oscar nomination.
Pollock has long been a pet project of Harris. He’s spent much of the last decade reading and thinking about the alcoholic “action painter” whose drip, pour, slash-and-splash paintings became an international rage as well as whipping post for all things wrong with modern art. He’s even spent time experimenting with paint on canvases stretched over the floor in a fashion Pollock referred to as “the arena.” His thorough mental and physical immersion in Pollock’s milieu and mindset has spawned a terrific performance and competent directorial debut in a film that is just as frustrating and nonrevelatory as it is vivid and explosive.
The film begins in 1950 at a swank New York art gallery reception. Pollock, the current sensation, surveys the scene and lapses into a haunted gaze into space. We then are escorted to 1941 and slowly back again as the film chases, sometimes confronts but never fully corrals Pollock’s personal and aesthetic ghosts.
This dark, calamitous time hop takes us first to the Greenwich home of Pollock’s brother where the heavily drinking and mentally unstable Pollock has worn out his welcome with his sibling’s wife ("We have a child on the way,” she coldly reminds her husband). Painter Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden, also nominated for an Oscar) is soon drawn to Pollock’s abstract work. They share studio space and move to Long Island in 1945 where he goes on and off the wagon, and in and out of infantile rages and monogamy, while a supportive but forceful Lee hollers at him to get a grip on reality and “Just paint!”
Art collector and Art of This Century gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim (a frizzy-haired Amy Madigan) agrees to show Pollock’s pieces if he paints an entryway mural for her Upper East Side home. He agrees. The show is a failure. His life is a mess. He drunkenly pisses in Peggy’s fireplace during a party, later has sex with her and finds a friend in legendary critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffery Tambor) as the film charts Pollock’s rise and decline, and death in a car wreck at the age of 44.
Harris’ film is about self-doubt, self-discovery, self-indulgence and conflicted feelings of loyalty. It explores the fusion of what a man does and what he is, artistic form and content, and the real and self-perpetuated existence of tortured artists. It recreates the 1940s and 1950s with impressive detail. It’s the details in Pollock’s life that are missing. The source of Pollock’s demons are never dissected, and his family (they come and go here like contemporary cousins of Bonnie’s dust-bowl kin in Bonnie and Clyde) and friends (like Val Kilmer’s turn as artist Willem de Kooning) are introduced and then ignored.
Some scenes have the aftertaste of spent gunpowder. The scene in which Lee explains why she doesn’t want to have children is the showstopper. Pollock’s long stare at a blank canvas, and his stumble into drip-painting and his spurts of creativity are also rather exciting and credible. But the film feels more like a succession of isolated snapshots than a cohesive photo album.
Life magazine ran an August 1949 center spread on Pollock that asked, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” Harris does not try to answer that question, but shows us how Pollock plowed through life the same way he plowed his Oldsmobile convertible coupe into the underbrush in 1956, injuring his lover and killing her friend.
“I think the film is much more revealing of Ed Harris then it is of Jackson Pollock,” says Harris in the anthology Such Desperate Joy, Imagining Jackson Pollock. I agree. And it’s probably best to approach it as a Pollock painting: just look passively and receive what the frames have to offer.