It's all in the eyes.
They reflect so well the fierce focus, the numbing effects of alcohol, the absolute need to create, and the demons of the man who was Jackson Pollock.
Ed Harris presents a stunning portrait of the emotionally damaged artist. So stunning, in fact, that it takes a while for viewers to realize that the movie Pollock is actually pretty shallow.
Harris re-creates the “how” of Pollock and his art, but he ignores the “why,” and by the film's end, that omission has grown too obvious to ignore. Pollock becomes a hollow creation, beautiful to look at but ultimately dissatisfying.
In the 1940s, Jackson Pollock is part of the postwar modern-art movement centered in New York City. His peers include architect and sculptor Tony Smith (John Heard), artist Willem DeKooning (Val Kilmer), and critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor), who helps to keep Pollock's work in the public eye after he is “discovered” by eccentric modern art patron Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan).
Despite the support of family and friends, Pollock is emotionally unstable. In many ways, he never outgrew being a self-centered child, impatient, demanding, and driven to tantrums when life didn't go his way. Recognizing both the genius and the needs of the man, artist Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), who has fallen in love with Pollock, puts her career on hold as she guides his.
For several years, all is well. They move to a farm on Long Island, where Pollock, with Krasner's help, stays away from alcohol and allows his creativity to flow, peaking with the moment that he discovers the famous technique that earns him the nickname “Jack the Dripper.” It is there that he formulates his guiding principle: “I don't use the accident, because I deny the accident.” And it is there that, on one terrifying night, he returns to alcohol and resumes the path to his own destruction.
At this point, the viewer, so caught up in Pollock's life and work, will want to know why such a talented man is so tortured, so bent on self-destruction.
And there are no answers.
Harris, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the artist, and the Oscar-winning Harden are simply superb at presenting their characters and keeping them compelling even when the questions become too insistent to ignore. Madigan chews the scenery as Guggenheim, but by all reports, the flamboyant woman did a fair amount of that in her personal life.
Perhaps the complaints about Pollock are unfair. After all, it is a film, not a history, and although Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller based their screenplay on the book Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, that is only one source. Other sources may present a more balanced picture of the man. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the whys of Jackson Pollock are a mystery even to his family and the art circles in which he moved.
It is to actor-director Harris' immense credit that viewers will feel enough empathy with the man to want to know more.