Jackie is a dramatically and emotionally engaging film – albeit a highly confused one. Stylistically, the film is one of the most easily defined arthouse efforts of the current awards season; in his English language debut, director Pablo Larrain has crafted what seems like the antidote to the standard biopic, invoking a sense of horrifying dread as we delve deeper into the tortured psyche of the world famous protagonist following one of the most infamously horrifying moments in American political history.
Both the score and the invasive cinematography make this feel less like a snapshot of history than being thrown face first into a horrific situation that we too are experiencing first hand. Moments after Jackie Kennedy sees her husband murdered, she sees Lyndon Johnson sworn in with her husband’s body still laying warm next to her, Mica Levi’s score repeating a simplistic string refrain until it becomes as nakedly haunting as the scores from Psycho or Jaws. Days later, while still grief-struck and heartbroken, she is forced to move out of her adopted home in Washington – she knew she had to move out, but in circumstances so horrifying, being ordered to rush out because of the next President’s duty seems like the most tasteless concept imaginable. Sequences and details like this help make Jackie a more convincing character study than many other recent biopics. Even if it does share many of the same problems as other films in this genre, it has a bold, innovative stylistic conviction that helps it feel like a singular work of art in a field dictated by middlebrow prestige pictures.
Pablo Larrain’s style is best showcased in recreations of archive footage, using the exact same outdated television technology used to make the famous documentary of Jackie Kennedy giving a tour of the White House. Recreations of that footage manage to blur the line between what is a recreation and what is a manipulation of archive footage – a tactic he deployed to winning effect in his 2012 film No, his 80’s set biopic of Chile’s vote for democracy. There, he used TV cameras and a narrow aspect ratio to make the film look deliberately televisual, so the archive footage and newly shoot footage would seamlessly blend together into one cohesive piece. He isn’t as brave here, but the end result is still stylistically daring in many ways.
The film has indisputable strengths in its direction, cinematography, score and towering lead performance from Natalie Portman, delivering a mannered performance that perfectly attempts to mask the wounds for the sake of keeping a public face. But the film is denied classic status from the overwrought screenplay from Noah Oppenheim, in his first script for a non-YA franchise movie (his only previous credits are the Divergent and Maze Runner adaptations). It features incredibly on the nose dialogue that repeatedly threatens to harm the subtle nature of the performances, as well as intruding on the deliberately detached directorial style with its overbearing emoting. The dialogue is frequently expository, condensing the surrounding historical context into lines that never ring true, even when delivered by a fiercely talented ensemble cast.
Jackie is an intoxicating and quietly horrific look at one of the most public tragedies of the 20th century, that overcomes the flaws in the screenplay due to strong performances and direction.