On first glance, you may be inclined to think that "Jackie" is just another conventional biopic. Admittedly, I made that silly mistake myself when the project was first announced. But as a cinephile with knowledge of the work of Pablo Larrain, I should have known better. The inspired directorial vision behind such films as "No", "The Club" was never going to make a simple "cradle to grave" prestige film of the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. And so it is, "Jackie" emerges as one of the most uniquely accomplished films of 2016.
Set during the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, "Jackie" examines the effects of the tragedy on the former First Lady. As told through a Life magazine interview, Jackie recounts the events of her life before, during and after that fateful day. Through her words we learn of her passion for the arts and history, the immediate trauma of the attack and the subsequent anger, disbelief and grief that followed. But most of all, she shows her unwavering dedication to preserve the legacy of her husband and remind the world of the greater good he believed in.
In an early scene, a man advises Jackie to stay out of the spotlight after her husband's death, stating that "the world's gone mad." This sentiment is certainly one that pervaded throughout American society during that period, and Larrain absolutely runs with it. Indeed, it's easy to understand why Darren Aronofsky was once attached to direct, as this film shares much of the same idiosyncratic filmmaking as his own Natalie Portman-starrer "Black Swan" (with another Best Actress Oscar likely on the way too). Mournful and chilly, "Jackie" has much more in common with psychological dramas than the plot-based character studies typical of the biopic genre. Mica Levi's haunting score captures the surreal atmosphere, while the direction maintains a stark, measured control. And the cinematography is often stunning in its ability to evoke the era as cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine experiments with various film stock. It would come as no surprise if the film were to garner Oscar nominations for Best Original Score, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
"Jackie" truly represents filmmaking of the highest order, and it's most tremendous technical feat is its central performance. While Jackie was understandably distraught and fragile during those dark days, Larrain also envisions Jackie Kennedy as a woman of extraordinary composure, allowing Natalie Portman to deliver her most fiercely commanding performance to date. With her modulated voice, she is admittedly jarring at first. But Portman masterfully sinks into the role, burrowing into every nook and cranny of her character's psyche. And she is well served by Noah Oppenheim's probing, non-linear screenplay (certainly a Best Original Screenplay contender), deftly showing the complexity of this fascinating woman.
"Jackie" is definitive proof of Pablo Larraín's boundless talent. He has taken a film genre and a historical icon we thought we already knew, and created something inventive and astonishing. Unlike most biopics, there is no warm emotional pay-off here. But his interpretation of Jackie's mythic "Camelot" is altogether unforgettable. We'll surely be talking about this Best Picture hopeful for months to come.