In the opening moments of Pollock, a young woman presses through the crowd at a New York art gallery so that she can get close to Jackson Pollock, who is having a featured show there. It’s 1949, and as he reaches out to sign her copy of the famous Life magazine article that celebrates him as the most vital force in American painting, the camera focuses in on his eyes, which look steely, half dead, possessed by a doomed spirit that has nothing to do with his success – or with the exploding atom ecstasy of his art.
Ed Harris has always been a great actor in search of a role that could match his haunted intensity, and in ”Pollock,” which he directed and stars in, he finds it. Physically, the casting is so right as to seem inevitable: the virile baldness, the stare of silent challenge, the way that Harris’ Pollock wields a cigarette like a throwaway extension of his will. And the studio scenes, rooted in the moment when Pollock drips paint onto the floor by accident and discovers his revolutionary controlled splatter technique, are everything you hope for. Pollock’s style was so singular, so joyfully athletic in its execution, that we believe, more than in perhaps any other film about an artist, that we’re witnessing the creation of actual works.
Yet ”Pollock,” for all the praise that has been heaped upon it, is a quasisatisfying, half realized vision. The movie offers some juicy insider glimpses of the New York art world – Amy Madigan has a china rattling zest as Peggy Guggenheim – but once Pollock moves out to Long Island and settles into the war between creativity and alcohol that would destroy him (one look at the later paintings reveals that booze was anything but his inspiration), the film lapses into ”explosive” incoherence. No, we don’t need a glib cause and effect analysis, but the spiritual contours of Pollock’s demons remain not so much enigmatic as blankly out of reach. What we see is a man with a hole at his center, and that leaves a hole in the movie, too.