“A tone poem masquerading as a biopic, it’s neither a really good tone poem nor a really bad biopic. Rather, it winds up in an eerie middle ground, flawed yet fascinating.”
by Ken Bakely
Considering that it’s as emotionally scrambled as a half-forgotten nightmare, as aesthetically moody as a 100-minute book trailer, and as incessantly un-subtle as a parody of itself, it’s a miracle that Pablo Larraín’s Jackie manages to stay in one piece. The film doesn’t mythologize Jackie Kennedy, it turns her into a wax figure. And yet, when it feels like an endless horror show of her giving a rocky interview to a journalist (Billy Crudup) at Hyannis Port while flashing back to November 1963 – framing device as clunky as ever – something amazing happens. Good things come out, and they make themselves heard and seen and known. Natalie Portman’s performance is accomplished, layered, and striking. Mica Levi’s brilliant score is a haunting walk through a foggy cemetery. And Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography – at once so delicate, yet so brutal – overwhelms the senses. A tone poem masquerading as a biopic, it’s neither a really good tone poem nor a really bad biopic. Rather, it winds up in an eerie middle ground, flawed yet fascinating.
There are moments of genuine conviction, two of which stick out above the rest. After John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) has been shot, and the motorcade speeds to Parkland Hospital, Jackie, in a state of cold shock, cradles her husband’s exploded head in her rigid arms, his lifeless body sprawled out in the car. One night, Jackie wanders through an empty White House, dressed up and drunk, as the reprise from Camelot echoes like a taunt. Larraín shows his abilities at staging indelible scenes. Portman demonstrates the difficult, punishing nature of the performance she has been called to give – nonverbal expressions, masking petrifying confusion and startling loss, having to redefine herself and give her husband a proper start to his legacy all at the same time.
Those individual scenes work, as does another, a black-and-white remake of a 1961 televised tour that Jackie Kennedy gave of the executive residence, artificial and ominous. Jackie feels like a roughly cut-together compilation of clips from one of the greatest TV miniseries ever made. Flashbacks and flashforwards aside, it lives in four days – from the assassination to the funeral – and becomes entrenched, contextually and thematically. The problem is that this is unclear to the audience, as we are left to jolt around in between all these snippets.
Noah Oppenheim’s script is too overstuffed to function, at once trying out a number of prestige drama tropes, and worrying that the audience will not understand what’s going on unless the dialogue is expositional as possible. Both of these problems manifest themselves when Jackie has bizarre conversations about religion with a priest (John Hurt). They serve no purpose except to provide internal reflection on the titular character’s inner-monologue, and in the most obvious of blurted-out lines. Simultaneously, they’re treated with such thick, syrupy self-seriousness that it’s clear some kind of nonexistent profundity was sought. That Portman is able to extract a full performance from such an unfinished sketch is attributable to her own abilities.
What does Jackie end up being? There’s entirely too much of itself, as a ridiculously scatterbrained script is given a dramatic treatment which borders on the operatic. It’s like a cake that’s been overdecorated, overbaked, and served without the slightest shred of self-awareness. The ingredients are there, but it crashes to the pit of your stomach. You can’t think about anything else except of how many things there are in it, and how badly they go together. Something went wrong at the start of preparation, but nobody seemed to notice. This is such an odd movie – a gigantic blowout of structural deficiencies, presented with genuine talent, but unable to salvage itself beyond the abstract. At least it’s never boring.