Rarely does a film come along that induces headaches quite like Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie.” It’s not the kind of headache that comes from watching an unbearable film, but the kind that emerges when a film knows how to string its audience along its ever-increasing and stressful devolution. “Jackie” is a remarkable feat in atmosphere and character analysis, but it forgoes its story and structure in favor of an intense, and at times over the top, psychological slideshow of cut and paste moments from the life of a political widow.
Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jackie Kennedy, played by Natalie Portman, contemplates her place in a world without the man she had so often been defined by. Terrified by the thought of becoming forgotten in the depths of history, Jackie works to solidify her husband’s legacy as an American icon. But through her attempts to become immortalized, she slowly begins to lose her grip on both her identity and sanity in the face of cultural irrelevance.
With its focus on tone and character, “Jackie” takes some liberties with its narrative structure. The plot jumps from flashback to flashback, changing its location in time as frequently as it changes its positioning of narrative moments. The film is framed by an epilogue to the plot in the form of an interview that details Jackie’s mindset more than her actual recounting of specific narrative events. This jarring back-and-forth from contemplation to varying glimpses into the events following the assassination, prevents the audience from being able to watch a chronological story of Jackie’s descent into slight madness.
Jackie is always found to be in a state of distress, locking the film into a perpetual neurotic state. With such a lack of narrative progression, the film dances the line between becoming surreal and lazy. With each and every glimpse into the week following JFK’s assassination, we are treated to an overwhelming and frustrating feeling of déjà vu. Each scene feels and looks the same, with Jackie showcasing her unraveled mind amidst a materialistic environment. There is no way to escape Jackie’s situation, and we as an audience are stuck with her in this disturbingly surreal hell. The déjà vu is further established with the cinematography and soundtrack. The shots are absolutely stunning, alternating between long and ornate frames to close and claustrophobic tracking. These two styles trade off and repeat scene after scene. The score is chilling, uncomfortable and completely nauseating. Just like the cinematography, the score repeats itself over and over again.
It is the repetition that makes the film such a fantastic headache. Having the cinematography and soundtrack paired with the monotonous narrative design, the film presents a woman stuck in limbo, unable to move on with her life. There isn’t a clear progression of character development or of plot advancement, and this delay bleeds into the redundant and nauseating feeling that nothing is progressing or moving forward, that Jackie herself is stuck in the moment that follows her husband’s death.
Of course, the most impressive aspect of the film is the character presentation. While it can be seen as one-dimensional, Natalie Portman no doubt gives one of the most haunting performances of the decade. There is a perfect comparison to be made between her Jackie Kennedy and Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview. Both are at times overacted, but they are both so incredibly dedicated and disturbed that their overindulgence in performance is overshadowed by the perfection of their craft.
Overall, “Jackie” excels in creating one of the most unnerving atmospheres seen in recent cinema. With its troubling yet beautiful score and familiarized repeating scenarios, “Jackie” creates a world in which time has completely stopped. Director Pablo Larraín successfully immerses the audience into his twisted vision, trapping us with Jackie as she attempts to escape her nauseating horror through the immortalization of her dead husband. The images and moments presented are truly haunting, but its two-hour run time begins to exhaust its overdone themes and moral quandaries by the overstuffed final fourth of the film. “Jackie” never quite hammers home these themes or moral questions, but instead allows them to linger in uncertainty for the audience to contemplate long after it is over.