Born in January 1961, the director-writer Todd Haynes grew up in Encino, California, the son of a cosmetics importer and an actress. Not to be reductive, but cosmetics (the masks people are forced to wear) and acting (the personae they’re forced to forge) are central to his work. Openly gay, Haynes went on to study semiotics at Brown University, and much of his work critiques behavior that is rigidly coded by society and that drives individuals — particularly individuals with more fluid sexuality — in the direction of conformity and its attendant despair. All that is inarguable. What’s open for debate is whether his films cross the blood-brain barrier and amount to more than chill, reductive deconstructions. Not to mention: Are they entertaining?
Haynes has never made a really bad film, although his latest, Wonderstruck, is both his most humanistic and least potent. A low ranking here does not imply derision: Every film below is worth seeing and grappling with. For many viewers, Haynes’s Bob Dylan fantasia I’m Not There is his most visionary work and has inspired passionate analysis — some of which reminds me of a line from Haynes’s Poison: “I can hear the angels farting on the ceiling.”
For the record, I met and quite liked Haynes in the mid-1990s, when I worked with his longtime and devoted producer, Christine Vachon, on a book called Shooting to Kill: How an Independent Film Producer Blasts Through the Barriers to Make Movies That Matter. But as the list below demonstrates, I have no problem being objective.
8. Wonderstruck (2017)
Haynes’s urban fairy tale for and about kids cuts back and forth between a young boy and girl in separate time periods (1927 and 1977) who travel to New York in search of absent parents and a “cabinet of curiosities.” The first part is a beautiful but confusing hash, full of tricky montage (wolves, movie stars, shooting stars) and temporal echoes. (It’s like Christopher Nolan’s gimmicky idea of parallel histories that merge — which I don’t mean as a compliment.) The last act (featuring Julianne Moore in weak old-age makeup) is downright sentimental. It’s meant to soar, but Haynes doesn’t have Steven Spielberg’s gift for getting inside the heads of his child protagonists. I agree with my colleague Emily Yoshida that Haynes makes it hard to be “held rapt by [kids’] moods, or a heavy gaze out of a rainy window” — especially with all the imagistic clutter.
7. I’m Not There (2007)
A Bob Dylan biopic that not even Dylan, for all his self-mythologizing, would have had the audacity to conceive. Directly answering the charge — made by devastated idolaters when the singer-songwriter abandoned folky protest songs for rock in the mid-’60s — that Dylan is an opportunist, a hollow man who believes in nothing and picks up and discards one fake persona after another, Haynes makes a passionate case that this protean quality is, in fact, the source of Dylan’s greatness, the mark of a pure and ungovernable spirit. It’s the antithesis of Velvet Goldmine, in which Haynes identified with kids whose hearts were broken by his Bowie stand-in. Haynes segments his protagonist into seven different characters played by six actors, each embodying one of Dylan’s “lives,” then tells the artist’s story in chronological order but with echoes, fantasies, flashbacks. There’s a hint that Dylan is like Christ, sacrificing earthly stability to embody the restless spirit of America. But the movie is superficial instead of archetypal, deconstructing Dylan in lieu of getting into his head and depersonalizing the actors to keep them from making Dylan too complete a human being. (The only part that soars features Cate Blanchett doing a nightclub impersonation of the gnomic, drug-addled anti-prophet with the curly hair and sunglasses of the late ’60s.) Haynes’s view that both over-exalts Dylan and belittles him without coming close to illuminating his mystery. It’s the movie that isn’t there.
6. Poison (1991)
Haynes’s first theatrical feature is best known for causing an uproar — Republicans in Congress seized on its gay scenes as an excuse to excoriate the National Endowment for the Arts, which provided some funding. Free-expressionists who flocked to the film found a madly ambitious omnibus that never really jells. It has three separate strands: a faux documentary about a boy who kills his father and is then apotheosized (“Hero”); a black-and-white ’50s monster-movie pastiche (“Horror”); and a slow, arty adaptation of two gay stories by Jean Genet, one set in prison and featuring the notorious gay sex. These stories of transgression and transgressive love are permeated with longing a dread — the impact of AIDS, then an unstoppable contagion, can be felt in almost every frame. The postscript is Genet’s call for acting out despite that dread: “A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness.” Poison is the kind of challenging mess you want a young filmmaker to make, and, thanks to Republicans in Congress, it made money.
5. Velvet Goldmine (1998)
This Citizen Kane–like fantasia on the early-’70s glam era is determinedly swirling, discursive, elliptical — a fractured eulogy for glittery artifice and bisexuality. The movie opens with a spaceship depositing an infant Oscar Wilde on the stoop of a Dublin townhouse. Then Haynes tracks a jade pin (signifying hedonistic liberation) from the custody of a young Wilde to a swishy fringe figure called Jack Fairy to the regal Brian Slade (brazenly slim-hipped Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a bisexual superstar (modeled on David Bowie) who carries the news to all the young dudes. After that, we’re in an Orwellian 1984 that’s presided over by a vaguely fascist president and propagandistic arena rockers (Slade with a different face and identity). Underneath the allegory, it’s a brokenhearted adolescent’s cry of betrayal, a hate letter to the man who liberated so many by smashing sexual roles and then became — in Haynes’s view — a hollow opportunist throwing in his lot with the forces of repression. (Bowie read the script and declined to give producers the rights to his anthem, “All the Young Dudes,” which would have ended the film.) (Yes, Bowie wrote “ATYD,” although Mott the Hoople recorded it best.) The problem is that the movie isn’t really filled in: It’s all signifiers, the performers coming at you in stroboscopic flashes, the relationships indicated rather than dramatized. (Slade’s self-destructive passion for Ewan McGregor’s Curt Wild, the film’s fuzzy Iggy Pop figure, seems less an emotional imperative than a thematic one.) But the central conceit comes through: The power of popular culture to convey that it’s okay for people to fashion themselves into anything they please.
4. Carol (2015)
A romantic lesbian drama that caught on with gays, semiotics majors, and 1950s women’s fashion enthusiasts. Adapted from novel by Patricia Highsmith (writing under a pseudonym, her own lesbianism under wraps), it charts the affair between a wealthy, middle-aged woman (Cate Blanchett) and a gamine-like department store worker (Rooney Mara). Haynes does more than dramatize Highsmith’s work. He rekindles — and glamorizes — the thrill of a once-forbidden subculture. The pair’s behavior is coded, but they send subtle signals to each other, and you watch them closely, caught up in the sexiness of their “transgression.” A virtuoso but somewhat artificial actress, Blanchett gets a chance to explore the tension between artifice and genuine emotion. Haynes has cited such period photographers as Ruth Orkin and Vivian Maier — there’s a hint that all this stylized elegance is on the verge of going to seed. (The production designer is Judy Becker, the cinematographer Ed Lachman.) At the times the overbearing design — the clear sense that Haynes is deconstructing ’50s cinema — kept me at arm’s length. But at its best, Haynes’s deconstructions are gloriously romantic.
3. Far From Heaven (2002)
At its worst, Haynes’s Oscar-nominated commercial breakthrough — a ’50s-set, loose remake of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows — is like a visit to the Sirk Wax Museum. At its best, Haynes goes so deep into his own attraction to Sirk that he fetishizes Sirk’s conventions and makes them even more tantalizing. The heroine, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), is like an ancestor of Safe’s Carol White. (She has the same initials.) At first, she’s a cheerful role model for women with families and homes to keep up in a Waspy enclave with forward-looking corporations — she has never imagined any other life could exist. Neither has her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), except that nature played a prank on him and made him gay. Haynes doesn’t identify with — or romanticize — Frank, a somewhat robotic patriarch. The film’s heartfelt relationship is between Cathy and the black lawn tender (Dennis Haysbert), to whom she turns for solace — and then something more. Through formal restraint, Haynes conveys how helpless and imprisoned these people are — how hard it is to make a move that hasn’t been choreographed by fear of not conforming. Although the mise-en-scène is rigorously controlled, the actors aren’t deadened: Their characters are helplessly alive beneath their starched uniforms.
2. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988)
I saw Haynes’s stop-motion animation piece at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival and again on a bootleg VHS tape that someone slipped me. In the ’90s, some of the hipper video stores kept it under the counter. You always had to ask. There are various online sources for it now. The point is that it can never have a commercial release, because it uses a bunch of Carpenters songs that the surviving sibling, Richard, won’t license. I probably wouldn’t either if I’d been him: He doesn’t come off in the film as entirely sympathetic.
But the movie is one of the most profound tributes to a self-destructive artist ever made. Haynes uses Barbie dolls to depict the rise and wasting away from anorexia of the singer Karen Carpenter, who could never be comfortable in her own body. Those dolls create a built-in camp effect and the audience begins by laughing at this elaborately posed, soft-rock femme in her outrageously ’60s–’70s garb — only to discover by the climax that the cultural forces that are eating at her (and that keep her from eating) have grown heartbreakingly palpable. Lucky audiences emerged shaken, weeping.
1. Safe (1995)
A soul-sick art movie that hits us where we live. Julianne Moore plays Carol White, an affluent, Reagan-era L.A. housewife who becomes more and more sensitive to environmental poisons, first seeking medical and then quasi-spiritual (New Age) relief. Her wasting malady remains unspecified, but Haynes gives you all kinds of hints — in the furniture, the accessories, the bleaching light — that its roots are in oppressive materialism and sterile conformity. She’s the canary in the ’80s coal mine. Despite Haynes’s somewhat ironic detachment, he draws you into its heroine’s sickly state: Breathing oxygen from a canister inside a high-tech igloo, she dwindles to nearly nothing, the modern incarnation of the Incredible Shrinking Man. The movie left some viewers bored and exasperated, others unnerved to the point of getting the shakes. Moore would go on to appear in four more Haynes theatrical features. But she has never been so nakedly vulnerable — you can almost see through her skin.