One of the feints at work is how our perceptions of Elizabeth change. At first, Elizabeth seems like a nice enough woman, doing her due diligence for a role she’s excited about. From the brief hints we get, her career is less than inspiring, so she’s ambitious to do something challenging. Because Gracie and Joe’s past is so notorious and everyone clams up when the subject is raised, Elizabeth is an innocent strolling through a strange world. She is us. But then she is invited to speak with a high school drama club, and things take such a bizarre turn during the Q&A period that it’s one of the most uncomfortable scenes in a film wall to wall with uncomfortable scenes. You have to completely re-think Elizabeth. It won’t be the last time.
Almost imperceptibly, Elizabeth mirrors Gracie. She mirrors her hand gestures, lisping voice, posture, fashion choices, and lipstick shade. There are multiple scenes involving mirrors, one where Elizabeth is bookended by two Gracies, all three sitting in the same way. There is a long “Persona”-like scene where the two characters stare directly into the camera, side by side, Gracie putting on makeup as Elizabeth watches her voraciously. Elizabeth’s quest to “become” Gracie is, ultimately, predatory, another strange element in a movie about an actual legal predator. Portman’s work here is very tricky because it happens by degrees. Is she transforming because she’s “becoming” Gracie, or is the real Elizabeth finally being revealed? Portman’s reading of the line “This is what grown-ups do” was such a gut punch I never recovered my equilibrium.
Julianne Moore’s performance is so interesting because, at a certain point, you have to face the possibility that there isn’t more to Gracie than meets the eye. She doesn’t feel she did anything wrong; she loves her husband. She talks to Elizabeth, having no idea how “off” she seems, considering the circumstances. “I was very sheltered, and he matured very fast,” she says. Does she have any idea how that sounds? If you’re looking for answers, Julianne Moore is not here to provide them on a platter. It’s fascinating, bold work.