Natalie Portman's 'Jackie' Is the Scariest History Lesson Ever

natalie portman oscar for jackie
Fox Searchlight
Fox Searchlight

Maybe don't tell your parents there's a new movie about Jackie Kennedy starring Natalie Portman out in theaters right now. You'll want to, but...

For viewers of a certain age, the promise of Jackie will evoke fashion statements, flash photography, and tragedy frozen in time, one better commemorated than remembered. The real Jackie Kennedy was a person, but their Jackie Kennedy was a statuette in a dynastic tableau forged by Vanity Fair and half-dollar coins. They would hear "Jackie Kennedy movie" and envision an eye-popping pink Chanel suit. The movie gives them the outfit stained in blood and cranial fluid. Jackie is one of the most barbed and breathless movies of the year -- so, yeah, maybe don't tell your parents there's a new biopic about Jackie Kennedy out in theaters. 

Unless, like you (because I believe in your tenacity), they guzzle psychological mania like a morning coffee. Then by all means, tell them. Under the direction of Pablo Larraín, the Foreign Language Oscar nominee whose 2012 film No, a stunning examination of the 1988 Chilean election that would dethrone Augusto Pinochet, is already one of the all-time-great political docudramas, Jackie drops the First Lady into a seething horror movie, where grief and social pressure haunt her like Freddy Krueger.

As depicted in the movie, John F. Kennedy's assassination cracked the First Lady in half. And instead of retreating to her family and friends for emotional support, the presidential widow spent her aftermath plotting a legacy. JFK's funeral had to be regal, thousands parading down the street as a horse-drawn caisson carried him to St. Matthew's Cathedral, just like Washington did for Abraham Lincoln. The myth-making didn't drive Jacqueline Kennedy to madness, but it stopped only inches from the edge.

natalie portman as jackie kennedy
Fox Searchlight

Jackie is Portman's show, thought it's rarely showy. The actress' quiet roar, given a 50-decibel megaphone in the similar descent-into-delirium movie Black Swan, is tempered to an indoor voice by Larraín's take on the historical material. Even as her husband's death torments her and has her chugging martinis and blasting the original Broadway cast record of Camelot 24/7, as memories of her early days hosting White House hours swirl with nightmarish replays of her husband lying dead on her lap, Portman's Jackie is a smoky-voiced debutante. At least in public. 

When the doors of White House offices slam shut, a scheming force possesses Jackie like a demon -- really, Ryan Murphy would kill to conceive her. Her death stares ground White House aides down into dust, forcing them to agree to a funeral procession that is a security quagmire. She unnerves Lyndon B. Johnson, the new commander-in-chief, with a just few whispered words. And just a week after the assassination, she terraforms history in a high-profile Life magazine interview with a salvo of half-truths and glossy recollections. "I've grown accustomed to a great divide between what people believe and what I know to be real," she tells the reporter. Sinister. Portman moves between these mindsets with a sweeping motion worthy of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings camerawork. It's just grand.

Portman deserves, and will likely nab, an Oscar for her work in Jackie. But the win won't be a solo effort. Enveloping the actress throughout the movie is a musical thunderstorm written by composer Mica Levi. Levi, a violinist and orchestra-bending experimenter, is best known for her screeching soundtrack to the Scarlett Johansson-led sci-fi movie Under the Skin. Like Portman's interpretation of her character, Levi's work on Jackie is poised and classical, until emotion melts the notes into liquid fire. The music accompanies Jackie as she warbles between distressed and empowered, and the resulting score is like nothing you've heard in a movie before. Portman is the human presence that can carry the weight of Jackie Kennedy's persona, but Levi is the one who pressurizes the situations, oozing soul out of her pores. 

Jackie is not the "Kennedy movie" anyone with reverence for the Kennedy family would have predicted, or even asked for. Thankfully. Just in time for the cheery holidays, we get a top-tier performance that dissolves mystique in acid and comes up for air just before asphyxiation. A television may not do justice to Portman's low-key bravado -- Jackie is for the big screen. So, yeah, OK, maybe tell your parents to see this one after all. They need a good scare, too.

Jackie is out now in select theaters.

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Matt Patches is a Senior Editor at Thrillist. He previously wrote for Grantland,, and Vulture. Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.