If ever there was a great painter who lived at the pitch great actors do, it was Jackson Pollock. He lived a vision that could only be expressed intuitively, with his whole body. The “action” paintings for which he is best remembered are splattery explosions of pure intention, epics that illuminate the boldest movements of a soul in isolation, just as great films and great moments in theater do. It makes perfect sense that Ed Harris would want to take him on — from the high-minded intensity of his John Glenn in The Right Stuff to the furtive lunacy of his cameos in The Firm and Nixon, he has made a poetic specialty out of playing men who function best at the cliff edge of madness. Moreover, in Pollock, Harris — working from an intelligently woven script by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller — is making his debut as a film director. This ensures not only that the lava-flow totality of his identification with the role is protected from the chilling, superficial psychologizing that harms most movie biographies, but that every particle of his talent, particularly his ability to inspire other actors, is used to enlarge the mystery of who Pollock was, and continues to be in his art.

The film concentrates on the most dynamic and productive decade of the artist’s life — 1941 to 1950 — with one bold jump to 1955, when the tragedy that would consume him was in full ugly bloom. These years also coincide with Pollock‘s marriage to his fellow painter and most passionate champion, Lee Krasner, played by Marcia Gay Harden. The fusion of actress and character here is so seamless that the film (like Pollock) comes most fully alive around her. He is falling apart otherwise — drinking too much, waking up facedown in sooty alleys, frozen beneath a polar ice cap of Self, approaching both life and painting with an inarticulate instinct that borders on autism. She is his perfect opposite — conscious, articulate, with a hard instinct for where the treasures of American success are buried, and how to unearth them. Krasner sacrifices her own artistic career to support Pollock’s, finds him a patron in Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan), curries favor with top critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor) and even chooses the unpopulated spot in the Hamptons where Pollock can sober up and see his way clear to his best work. We‘re able to see in turn, with painful clarity, the truth of what Dawn Powell (a great writer of that era who had no such champion) meant when she wrote in her diary that “For a genius to be a genius, he must have a selfless slave between himself and the world,” the implication being that this slave is inevitably a spouse.

That Pollock was a legendary SOB is likewise a truth from which the film never flinches. There are scenes of verbal abuse and emotional violence played at the tips of nerves so raw and exposed that, if anything, it’s the viewer who flinches — but that honesty is the key to the film‘s meaning. Harris extracts the best from his cast: Madigan, groomed and grinning like a bird of prey, and Bud Cort as Guggenheim’s companion, pink and glazed as a pastry, so reinvent themselves as to be unrecognizable, a delight in harmony with Harden‘s perfect Brooklyn accent. What Harris extracts from himself is nothing less than a psychological nude scene, sustained across two hours. There are moments — such as when Pollock spazzes out at a dinner table in half-mad tribute to drummer Gene Krupa, or wails against his brother’s chest in the depths of a mental hospital, or (in a moment of country serenity engineered by Krasner) when he communicates silently, tenderly, with a lost dog — that we can feel the animal interiority of his life: his woundedness, his helpless proximity to pure feeling.

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