Saturday, December 3, 2016

Review: "Jackie"

Director: Pablo Larrain
Runtime: 99 minutes

Though it features only the briefest moments of blood and gore, there is something so deeply immersive and unsettling about Jackie that made me queasy. The lives, legacies, and tragedies of the Kennedy clan have been in the public consciousness for decades. Movies, miniseries, plays, novels, and conspiracy theories about the Kennedys have congealed into their own industry, and that industry has taken hold as its own sub-genre of American culture (Kennedy Kitsch? Kennedy Camp?). Yet none have pierced through shield of the Kennedy mythos quite like director Pablo Larrain. A native of Chile, Mr. Larrain's English language debut, despite centering on American royalty, feels as fresh and urgent as his film's directly tied to his homeland's socio-political conscious.

Even though Jackie opens with a familiar framing device (the subject is being interviewed, with length flashbacks filling in the gaps), Larrain is quick to distance himself from decades' worth of mythologizing and hagiography. Before Jackie O (Natalie Portman, astounding) even appears on screen, the viewer is jolted by the otherworldly strains of the score. There are no patriotic tunes of either the upbeat or mournful variety. Instead, avant garde composer Mica Levi (who also wrote the haunting music for Under the Skin) floods the soundscape with a swirl of alien notes and tones. The score, which seeps out like a frozen, enveloping embrace, is disorienting to brilliant effect. 

The Kennedy brothers (Jack is Caspar Phillipson, Bobby is Peter Sarsgaard) make their appearances throughout Jackie, but Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim keep the focus on the titular First Lady of Camelot. With whole life thrown into chaos, Jackie finds herself being unravelled at all angles, and Levi's music does an overwhelmingly powerful job of communicating her emotional discord. There are no elaborate swooping camera moves in Jackie, but Levi's music and Stephane Fontaine's images mix like vodka and Xanax. It's off-putting, then hypnotic, and climaxes with a sense of dissociation that leaves your nerves exhausted, your mind numb, and your innards hollow and tumultuous.

Jackie sustains its limited premise through its craftsmanship, but it's thanks to Portman that it transcends. It's a brilliant example that proves finding the right actor to play a historical figure goes beyond (and can even exclude) exact likeness. Portman's features have some glaring differences, and there appears to have been no use of padding or prosthetics to bridge the gap between artist and subject. Yet the instant those rounded words glide out of Portman's mouth, all doubt vanishes: it's her. 

Of course, vocal inflections and the right hair do not a rounded performance make, and Portman and Larrain are well aware of this. Oppenheim's screenplay, aided by Sebastian Sepulveda's editing, positions the various flashbacks like an orchestra of mirrors. They reflect and refract, with Portman functioning as the story's anchor more so than the scenes involving the journalist (Billy Crudup). Even if everything had been handled with an emphasis on linearity, it would do nothing to diminish Portman's work, which takes Jackie O through so much complex emotional territory and distills it into a character both deeply empathetic and not quite of this world (often at the same time). In short, it makes Portman's Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan look like amateur hour. 

The driving thesis of Jackie, which is pointed out early on, concerns reality's relationship with historical narratives and fairy tales. Portman, Larrain, and Oppenheim repeat the idea a few times (perhaps one too-many), but consistently find new ways to play it out in scenarios that feel possible and plausible, even if some liberties are taken in the name of drama. Did Jackie O ever try on a bunch of her clothes, sashay through the White House in a drug-and-booze addled stupor with the soundtrack to Camelot blasting out of the record player? I'm perfectly content never knowing the answer. Reality and history make strange bedfellows, and that discomfort lies at the heart of what makes Jackie sing so beautifully as a film. Larrain, whose dramas sometimes squander great set-ups on drawn-out, overwrought execution, could not have been a more inspired choice. 

Larrain's perspective is a thrilling compliment to the American iconography on display, and he guides Jackie's journey with masterful control of timing and tone (Oppenheim's script includes some welcome moments of mordant and mournful wit). Few scenes this year will merge great writing, acting, and directing the way Jackie does when the First Lady appears to break the news of JFK's death to her children. It is mesmerizing, stomach-churning, white-knuckle intense, and ultimately shattering. Larrain's guiding hand, Portman's face, and Oppenheim's words (and silences) take two horrendous moments (one personal, one political) and blow them up to operatic proportions: The President is dead...My husband is dead...My husband the President is dead. Those unspoken statements hang there through all of Jackie, and their weight only increases with time. When Crudup's journalist asks Jackie if she has any advice, she replies, "Don't marry the President." After spending just over 90 minutes in Jackie's head, you'll understand why.

Grade: A