Movie Review: Natalie Portman gives the year’s best performance in the haunting “Jackie”.
If nothing else, 2016 will be remembered as the year that Pablo Larraín radically re-wrote the language of the prototypical Hollywood biopic. Larraín’s other film from this year, “Neruda,” is a playful, irreverent, blackly comic meta-fiction about the Chilean poet, and is about as far removed from standard December awards fare as a movie can get. It’s a film of unruly detours and lingering power that is constantly calling attention to its technique, inventing new rules before breaking them moments later and coasting on an air of anything-is-possible invention. With “Neruda,” Larraín almost instantly became one of the most exciting directors of 2016, and seeing what he would do next was a prospect that had many a true-blue cinephile giddy with excitement.
You might expect Larraín’s “Jackie” — a disturbing kaleidoscope of grief and shattered memory that recalls a few days in the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the wake of her husband’s assassination — to be the kind of middlebrow Awards fluff that might attract the attention of an “I’ll-do-anything-for-a-gold-statue” hack like Morten Tyldum or (shudder) “The King’s Speech” director Tom Hooper. And, to be sure, you might see Natalie Portman in the film’s ads, embodying the former first lady in such a note-perfect, studied manner — the stately whisper of a voice, dripping with moneyed East Coast inflections, the practiced regal posture, the famous pink suit and Pillbox hat — that you might mistake Larraín’s movie itself to be a worked of skilled mimicry in the vein of Taylor Hackford’s “Ray”. Thank the cinematic Gods that Larraín didn’t listen to common sense. “Jackie” is a work of marvelous, irrational beauty: one of the year’s best pictures, and a movie that is so defiantly NOT a standard biopic that I don’t even really feel comfortable giving it the title.
“Jackie” is one of the year’s most genuinely unsettling pictures, which is not something I thought I would say about a movie that purports to be a first-person narrative about the wife of a former American president, though I’ve also never sat down for tea and biscuits with Hillary Clinton. Early on, Larraín creates a hallucinatory, discombobulating mood that feels more akin to something like “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” than any Weinstein Company-approved period drama. The film is shot on grainy 16mm and Larraín often fills his frames with his actor’s wounded, crumbling faces, lending “Jackie” the occasional air of a highbrow domestic horror movie a la Roman Polanski. The unrelenting mood of dread is only intensified by the brilliant score of Mica Levi (who also composed the bugfuck anti-melodic soundscapes of Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,”), which wobbles like a drunken dancer between dissonant, seasick strings, and inverted harmonies that sound wrung-out and rotten.
“Jackie” isn’t some shallow ode to a woman’s power in the face of adversity, though it certainly recognizes Mrs. Kennedy’s iron resolve when confronted with an act of unthinkable tragedy. The film also cannily acknowledges Mrs. Kennedy’s awareness of her public persona, both through bits of cutting dialogue and Mrs. Portman’s fearless, heartbreaking performance. Far from being an indulgence in mid-century American iconography, Larraín’s “Jackie” eventually morphs into an enervating and uncomfortably raw experimental expose of our public and private lives, and how the two often collide in the wake of a debilitating personal loss. It is a work of art with a great deal to say about mourning, about the legacies of fathers and the idealism of sons and daughters, and finally, about the myths we tell ourselves as citizens of America. The fact that it is Larraín’s first English-language feature makes this last notion all the more astonishing.
Larraín is working from a tough, cynical script by Noah Oppenheim (who also inexplicably penned “The Maze Runner”) and the movie’s central framing device is probably the most conventional thing about it. “Jackie” begins and ends in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, at a gloomy Kennedy family manor where Jackie herself is being interviewed by Life Magazine’s Theodore H. White (played with droll magnetism by Billy Crudup, who is having a great year). Their early scenes are tart, bitter, laced with veiled verbal venom. Jackie’s checkmate move involves spilling her heart out to White, before snappily cutting him off and reminding him that he won’t be able to print any of her most intimate recollections (Mrs. Kennedy is the kind of lady who will knowingly purr “I don’t smoke” seconds after lighting up a cigarette). It’s one of Larraín’s earliest cues to the audience to not trust everything we hear or see, one that adds a vexing dimension to Portman’s portrait of this woman in freefall. Forget about an unreliable narrator — the narrator of “Jackie” may very well be unknowable.
Unknowable, perhaps, but not obtuse, and certainly not lacking in definition. The remainder of “Jackie’s” brisk runtime unfolds as a breathlessly confident mélange of jagged reminiscence and shot-in-the-gut heartache. The scene where Jackie sits in the car next to her husband before he’s shot twice in the skull is horror-movie gory, and more genuinely upsetting than most deaths I’ve seen portrayed in movies this year. Mrs. Kennedy proceeds to try and number her pain by filling her days with activity. She tends to her husband’s funeral arrangements. She spends time with her children, both of whom wonder where their father is. She shares recollections of her happy marriage with a benevolent priest (a wonderful John Hurt) and relives happier times with her brother-in-law Bobby, played by Peter Sarsgaard in one of the more subtle and affecting performances of his career.
Occasionally, Larraín will cut back to Hyannis Port so that Jackie can clarify that not everything she’s saying is to be taken at face value and that the years have colored her memories in a cloudy shade of ennui and emotional distortion. “Jackie’s” thrillingly unorthodox narrative structure is actually like, maybe the sixth most unusual thing about it, and the fact that Larraín sticks the landing at all is kind of a miracle. In his trippy breakthrough picture “No,” “Neruda” and now his English-language debut, the director is playing with a lot of balls in the air: juggling lofty ideas about national identity, personal politics and the tenuous, almost invisible tissue that separates fiction from dreams. That all these wild ideas coalesce into one of the year’s most singular viewing experiences is nothing short of astonishing.
“Jackie,” like “Neruda,” is a movie that examines the rift between mythic figures who live in a kind of self-contained fantasy bubble and the broader society that they have been appointed to represent. Not for nothing does “Jackie” make idiosyncratic use of the theme from the Broadway musical “Camelot” in two separate scenes. As in separate sequence towards the end of the film, when the first lady is driven past a row of department stores advertising the kind of boxy, mid-century dress that she was wearing the day she saw her husband die in her arms, the “Camelot” references is an oblique and intelligent allusion to a more innocent, less complicated and undeniably romanticized time in American life. When Jackie laments that “there will never be another Camelot,” it’s not just one of the year’s greatest one-liners. It is a broken woman yearning and grieving for a gilded age that now seems so long ago: an age we glimpse in luminous flashbacks, where Jackie and her husband dance at debutante balls and offer tours of the White House to their loving friends and well-heeled associates.
I’m not sure if there is another modern actress who is as skilled at portraying women coming undone as Natalie Portman. It’s easy to think of her work in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” where she played a wound-up ballerina living with years of repressed sexual desires and under the thumb of a domineering mother figure. But Aronofsky’s movie, for all its dazzling formalism, was a work of unabashed camp and, as such, never rose to the shimmering heights that “Jackie” reaches near its heart-in-the-throat denouement. Mrs. Portman’s performance here is certainly mannered, and yet did the real Mrs. Kennedy not herself practicing a kind of mannered way of being? As was the case in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” — another reflexive, self-aware film about the Gods of American pop and political culture — “Jackie” is anchored on a lead performance that acknowledges its ploy right out the gate. Critics getting hung up on Mrs. Portman’s use of actorly tics are missing the point. What matters is the earnest expression of this woman’s crumbling soul: the uncertainty of who Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would become and what her place in the world will be after the passing of the man she loved. It’s an all-time great embodiment of a famous American face: a performance of searing, soul-baring intensity, so lived-in that the barrier between the fictional Mrs. Kennedy and the real Mrs. Portman all but disappears as we are watching the movie.
There are other notable actors in smaller roles: John Carroll Lynch as Lyndon B. Johnson, Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Max Casella as former MPAA director Jack Valenti, Greta Gerwig as Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman. All of these actors give note-perfect performances, though special notice must go to Mrs. Gerwig and Mr. Sarsgaard, whose portrayals transcend our memories of the real people they embodied. Mrs. Gerwig is a crucial asset to the film’ success: the emotional wavelength of “Jackie” is chilly, even ghostly at times, though it is never anything less than absorbing. Playing the closest thing Mrs. Kennedy had to an actual friend and confidante, Mrs. Gerwig taps into her naturally warm and relaxed screen energy, and her scenes with Portman allow a different kind of vibe — one imbued with compassion and off-the-cuff humor — to seep into the film’s icy exterior, if only for a few moments of a time. Mr. Sarsgaard is an actor I run hot and cold on, but his work as Bobby Kennedy is a revelation. As opposed to John Carroll Lynch — who embodies former president LBJ with such rugged assurance that it’s almost scary — Sarsgaard doesn’t explicitly try to emulate the former Massachusetts Junior Senator in the way you might expect. Instead, he plays Jack Kennedy’s little brother as an understandably aggrieved, desperately flawed man doing his damndest to not lose his soul in the most trying of times.
“We’re just the beautiful people, right? That’s all we are?” Bobby asks during one crushing scene, and it’s not an irony that is lost on “Jackie” the film: this may be the most beautiful movie about internal rot to see a major release in 2016, and maybe one of the great psychodramas of all time. You may think I’m being hyperbolic, but seriously: go see the movie for yourself and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s been several days now since I’ve absorbed Larraín’s masterpiece and the mood of the film has refused to leave me, like a grim omen I can’t shake. “Jackie” is a shimmering triumph in an Awards season crowded with good-to-great pictures, and further confirmation (if any was needed) that, like the Kennedys themselves, we’re going to be hearing Pablo Larraín’s name associated with greatness for a long time to come. Grade: A.