Jackson Pollock was a tormented soul who was able, until they overcame him, to pour those torments onto a canvas and make art of a kind no one had seen before.
"Pollock," a labor of love that Ed Harris not only stars in (and for which he's received an Oscar nomination), but also directed and co-produced, gets the torments right. There's no doubt that the Pollock depicted here is wrestling with some serious demons and that the only times he's able to best them is when he's painting. But it never really addresses the question of where those demons came from or what it was about painting that salved Pollock's soul so completely. We get a fabulous portrait of the artist as an angry young man, but are never able to look behind that portrait and see what made Pollock Pollock.
In fact, the closest the script comes to insight is during a brief exchange when Pollock is speaking with a woman at an exhibit. "You must be very happy," she tells him. His reply: "Damn near."
We first see Pollock in 1950. He's at the height of his fame, he's got fans crowding around him (one is even holding a copy of the famous Life magazine article that cemented his reputation as America's premier artist), and he looks like the most frightened man on the planet.
What made him that way? Two hours later, despite a passionate performance from Harris, one is still wondering.
The movie quickly flashes back to 1941, and finds Pollock living the starving artist's life in Greenwich Village. But a chance meeting with fellow artist Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) changes everything. Krasner sees Pollock's work, and soon she's forsaken much of her career in favor of his, championing his art, pushing him to create, forcing him into a public eye he's never been entirely comfortable with.
The two become lovers, then husband and wife. And slowly, inexorably, Pollock's reputation starts getting made. He finds a champion among New York art critics, Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor, so smug as to be almost a caricature). He finds a patron willing to finance his work, Peggy Guggenheim (a scene-chewing Amy Madigan).
Money, adulation, fame - everything starts rolling in. But if anything, Pollock becomes even more miserable, drinking, cheating on his wife, obsessing over any criticism, no matter how small.
"Pollock" is never more alive than during the painting sequences; it's the only time Harris allows his character to let his guard down. It's also the only time Jeff Beal's cliched score hits its mark. It's in those moments that "Pollock" does its subject justice; at other times, it seems stubbornly content to view its subject from the outside. Truth is, one can probably tell as much about Jackson Pollock the man by looking at his paintings than by watching this movie.
Starring Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden
Directed by Ed Harris
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Rated R (language, brief sexuality)
Running time 122 minutes
Sun score: * * 1/2