The aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is shown twice in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie. The first time the camera glides along behind the motorcade before swooping stylishly overhead to offer a brief, obscured glimpse at the President’s dead body slumped over in his wife’s lap. Then it is over. The presentation is slick, the camera movement polished and calculated, recalling some of the more ostentatious flourishes of Alejandro Iñarrítu’s Birdman or The Revenant. It’s style over substance, tragedy as aesthetic.
The second time we see the event, the camera lingers first on fragments of Kennedy’s skull splattered over the gleaming black surface of the car, then on the bloody mess of the President’s head, his brain leaking onto his wife’s pink dress. And then the camera holds uncomfortably close on Jackie’s face for what feels like an eternity as she processes this traumatic, unthinkable event.
The first presentation of the assassination is frustrating. It is too removed, too detached, almost glib. It seems to characterize Jackie (and Jackie) well, as a hollow shell more concerned with surface than substance. The second presentation is much more revealing: this is the moment that shattered everything, and all we’ve seen in the film is a flailing, possibly doomed attempt to pick up the pieces.
I went into Jackie hesitant, based on less-than-favorable reviews from critics I trusted, and was indifferent for much of its first half. Then I began to actively dislike it. And then, somewhere along the way, the film clicked for me, and I really came around to it.
For much of its runtime, Jackie seems vacuous and shallow. Then it becomes clear that in a film about façades – “performance and image, that’s what it’s all about,” proclaimed G.T.O. in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, released almost a decade after Kennedy’s death – the emptiness is the point, as it was in Hellman’s film and, more recently, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher.
A framing device, involving Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) being interviewed by Theodore H. White of LIFE Magazine (Billy Crudup), is the weakest element here, but it’s not a deal-breaker. Even if it’s often inelegant in the way it broaches Big Ideas, it helps get the film’s thesis across. The interactions between the First Lady and the reporter are strained, cautious, even tense. He probes, but she is guarded, more ready to toss out tropes and truisms than reveal any inner feeling. Stories are told and retold, authentic emotions censored relentlessly until the truth is obscured, if it exists at all.
If Portman’s performance seems too studied, too composed, too carefully modulated – too obviously a performance – well, that’s of a piece with everything else. We struggle, along with those around her and even the woman herself, to gain any insight into the “real” Jackie because it’s possible that there’s nothing real there, only an open wound or a gaping void. Consider the scene where Jackie must tell her children of their father’s death; she skirts around the subject, never once using the word itself. Instead, she piles layers upon layers of pageantry over the ugly truth, hoping to fill the void. But the emptiness cannot be ignored, either by the audience or the First Lady herself: in discussions with her priest (John Hurt), Jackie expresses a wish for death – a return to nothingness that would be preferable to a world of half-realized substance. Over the course of their many conversations, the priest offers glib answers of reassurance and vague promises of sympathy until he, too, is revealed to be a sham, overcome by the emptiness of it all, confiding that when he goes to bed every night he stares into the darkness haunted by unanswered questions. “You either accept it,” he says, “Or you kill yourself.” Jackie is almost unflinchingly bleak, and its final glimmers of hope and acceptance feel unconvincing and transient, vanities in a world where everything is meaningless and nothing is true.
As Danny Boyle did in last year’s Steve Jobs, Larraín eschews typical biopic format for something more daring and impressionistic (Though, for my money, Steve Jobs was more successful). The interview framing device provides a loose structure, but it barely functions as connective tissue, instead leaving us adrift in a sea of fragmented moments, flailing without success to find some sense of rhythm or meaning. For many, Jackie will be frustrating viewing, lacking a strong central throughline for much of its runtime and consciously forgoing the emotional connection we’ve come to expect from these kinds of films about Important People and Important Events. Larraín’s direction is clinical, distancing even as it’s oddly beautiful, continuously and ruthlessly undermining any hope of catharsis. Mica Levi’s work on Under the Skin is the best film score of the decade, and his work here is similarly haunting, rendering even the smallest of moments unsettling and alien. No one is happy in Jackie’s America; a birthday party feels artificial, a dance between spouses is unnerving and devoid of feeling. The only times the film evokes true human feelings – uncensored, not mediated through carefully composed façades – are moments of private grief. One scene lingers on Jackie, immediately after the assassination, sobbing as she wipes blood off her face in a mirror. Another sequence finds her wandering the empty White House for minutes on end, discarding bloodstained clothing piece by piece until she finally falls asleep alone in the bed once shared with her husband. If Jackie, the film, seems incapable of grasping a substantial central meaning, perhaps it’s merely following its subject’s example.
To some, Larraín’s film seems to cast too wide a net, exploring many subjects superficially and none of them deeply. To me, the film’s ambitions converge quite effectively when looked at as a study of grief and the way tragedies upend entire worlds, on a personal level as well as a national one. In the wake of her husband’s death, Jackie struggles mightily to secure his legacy, a place for her family to be remembered in the minds of the American people. Her desperate efforts to craft something out of nothing are constantly second-guessed by those around her, who would rather succumb to despair and nihilism. “We’re just the beautiful people,” Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) says, lamenting the Kennedys’ failure to really accomplish anything of lasting worth. But Jackie is unfazed; after all, she is preoccupied with beautiful things, images, signifiers of tradition without any of its substance. At one point, she insists that Jack’s ideals will live on, but we get no sense of what those ideals actually were. The emperor has no clothes; the Kennedys’ legacy is written in kitsch, embodied in a frivolous Broadway musical. Jackie presents a flimsy world, a house of cards toppled by senseless tragedy, a wormhole sucking all meaning out of an endless display of pageantry and artifice. Jackie’s Camelot collapses into a hall of contradictory mirrors, empty ideals, decaying images, unanswered questions. In the end, she can only find a small semblance of comfort in desperate nostalgia, by looking backwards to one brief shining moment before her America was shattered irreparably.