Note: An edited version of this review appeared in the ABQ Free Press and can be viewed here.
“Jackie” is a cement-mixer of a film. Its cinematic workings churn consistently for a little over two hours, virtually devoid of any cinematic energy of the traditional sense that the audience might be expecting.
Rather, a certain amount of intensity is created through a sort of dreamlike style which, like a cement-mixer, seems sluggish in its task but is necessary to the film’s ways of presenting themes that can be examined and appreciated for years.
And if the film is a cement-mixer, Natalie Portman is its driver, the one keeping the film’s metaphorical cement mixing so that it doesn’t solidify into formless rock, but rather something memorable.
That is to say, Portman is revelatory as the titular former First Lady, as demanding with her performance as her character is written to be. Even after a handful of career-topping roles over the years, “Jackie” has her at her most compelling.
She is in virtually every shot of the film, the camera either following her through rooms like an obedient disciple or having her face the audience head-on, her steely gaze cutting right into our souls.
Speaking of souls, director Pablo Larraín provides the film with one that is surreal and kinetic. This cement-mixer may seem slow, but most of the scenes don’t last more than a few minutes. Instead, it ping-pongs between various events that Jacqueline Kennedy engages in in the days before and immediately following her husband’s assassination.
A discussion with a priest. An orchestral concert alongside JFK. Funeral arrangements. Taking the American people on a televised trip through the White House as she describes the changes she has made to the décor.
By carefully layering certain portions of these scenes on top of one another – as gravel, sand and water form to create concrete – the film pieces together the inner workings of Jackie’s mind. It tells a grim story of a public figure much more vulnerable in privacy as she may have come across as being in public, a widow obsessed with ensuring her husband has an important legacy, or any legacy at all.
At the crux of the interweaving events portrayed onscreen is an interview between Jackie and a journalist (played by a rather stiff Billy Crudup) that we assume occurs after everything else we see in the film. While these scenes reinforce Jackie’s “my way of the highway” attitude, it also serves as a bit of a distraction.
The dynamic of the discussion between Jackie and the unnamed journalist serves as a way of helping us understand her motivations – as well as offering a standout scene as she describes the horrific assassination of JFK in her own words – but it does so in a way that is overly explicit.
“Jackie” is a heavy, cerebral film. It’s not supposed to be easy to understand; the way in which Portman walks, stares and dresses has as much to say as her dialogue. Multiple viewings are a must, even though this isn’t a film most would be willing to return to immediately. But it’s also just 20 to 25 minutes too long, and omitting these – while helpful – expendable scenes with Crudup’s journalist would make it all a bit more satisfying to absorb on an intellectual level.
But that is a small complaint for a movie that is provocative and memorable in its storytelling. Portman is an absolute force, the film’s pessimistic score telling as much. Hopeful music swells up at times, only to plummet into a kind of reverberating and unavoidable despair that characterizes the unique predicament Jackie Kennedy was placed into in the days following Nov. 22, 1963.
The way she reacts in the face of public pressure is not as much one of perseverance as it is a reminder that not even sleeping in the White House can provide all the answers for our troubles.
“Jackie” is rated R for brief strong violence and some language
Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup
Directed by Pablo Larraín