Biographical dramas, more than any other genre I can think of, slip so easily into the realm of convention that most of them sadly become indistinguishable from each other. The most recent defiance of the what-this-famous-person-did formula is “Love & Mercy,” a dreamy dive into the mind and passion of The Beach Boys’ frontman Brian Wilson. Criminally overlooked by the filmgoing majority, the film smartly avoided the same old sequence of events approach, opting for a freshly subjective take that provokes viewers to contemplate who Wilson is rather than what he did. “Jackie” brilliantly takes a cue from “Love & Mercy,” portraying its iconic subject through a stream-of-consciousness format that is at once mesmerizing then shocking. I don’t think I’ve ever been so haunted by a film about someone who actually walked this earth.
The biopic, masterfully helmed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, mostly concerns itself with the sad ordeal of First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman) during the gloomy aftermath of her husband's assassination, though it takes plenty of leaps in time, framing the bulk of the drama with Mrs. Kennedy’s closed-door interview with Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup, credited only as "The Journalist”), and even going back a few years to her popular broadcast from within the White House. I expect this way of structuring the days of someone as emblematic as Jackie Kennedy will bewilder some viewers, but there’s a peculiar sense of ecstasy that comes with watching “Jackie” carefully piece together shards of its subject’s memories.
I hesitate to use the word “dreamlike” to describe the atmosphere of Larraín’s film. It feels far too vivid to even begin to assume such a label; only memory feels so piercing. A startling cut to an extreme close-up of Jackie tearfully wiping her husband’s blood off her face, jumping from the president’s legendary funeral procession to the horrific moment of his murder as witnessed by his wife; only the conscious mind can generate such juxtapositions. Though “Jackie” certainly seems to stand tip-toed on the knife edge of dreams, there is no question that what we are witnessing is the First Lady’s emotional processing of what has happened to her and what will become of her following such trauma. Intrusive cinematography, a trembling score by Mica Levi (who gave “Under the Skin” its signature screech), and calculated editing are to be commended for bringing such striking images to life in rich detail.
“Jackie” is a healthy 99 minutes long, but the effort feels mercilessly longer. As slow as it becomes here and there (the middle sags a bit, and the final minutes feel more incessant than the ending of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”), I’m hard-pressed to dismiss the film as anything less than captivating. The most obvious reason for this is Portman’s radiant performance, which I could go on about in terms of just how precisely she commands the role every second she’s on screen. To avoid verbosity, I will simply say that this is easily the best work Portman has done. The other reason why I feel “Jackie” overcomes its methodical pacing is because, about halfway into the film, I felt an overriding sense that somehow (by some black magic, perhaps) the spirit of Mrs. Kennedy herself was in charge of the entire production. Other than Larraín’s astute direction, I’m sure that would explain the delicate craftsmanship “Jackie” displays better than most biopics of late.