“Fargo” and “Legion” auteur Noah Hawley shoots for the stars in his daring leap from the small screen to the big with his uniquely existential “Lucy in the Sky.” It’s a loose adaptation of the bizarre 2007 incident involving Lisa Nowak, an astronaut who was charged with attempted kidnapping after driving from Houston to Orlando to confront the Air Force captain she believed to be involved with her lover, another astronaut. But rather than trafficking in tawdry true crime, Hawley and co-writers Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi use the story to explore the thematic potential of what it means to return to life on Earth after experiencing space, from a point of view of a complex, challenging woman.
Natalie Portman stars as Lucy, and it’s clear Portman is still in her “high camp” phase, following “Jackie” and “Vox Lux.” This means a lot of Choices with a capital C: She sports a bowl cut, a bowlegged swagger and a broad Southern accent as the ruthlessly ambitious astronaut, hardened by her tough-talking Nana (an always excellent Ellen Burstyn). Portman makes the choices work by fully committing to her character and her journey without judgment or caricature. She does fine work making Lucy complex, sexy, funny and dangerous. The way she puts cowboy boots and a denim skirt to work as an extension of her big, bold attitude is outstanding.
Hawley also makes a lot of Big Choices in his cinematic directorial debut, some of which are somewhat confounding, but they enhance the surreal subjectivity of Lucy’s return to Earth. Compositions are hazy and out of focus around the edges, giving the images the sense of a dream or a partly recovered memory. There is concern about Lucy’s state of mind after her experience in outer space, where she reports she’s “never felt so alive.” She has a hard time connecting with her husband, the utterly pleasant Drew (Dan Stevens), drawn to the other astronauts who understand her unmoored sense of how minuscule life on Earth can be. She’s especially drawn to Mark (Jon Hamm), a heavy-drinking divorcé, a walking bad decision.
The film places us directly in Lucy’s state of mind (the film opens and closes with a close-up of her eyes), and Hawley reflects that in possibly his biggest creative choice of all: a constantly shifting aspect ratio that slides from widescreen letterbox to a squared-off Academy ratio. He executes the transitions almost imperceptibly but decidedly, and one spends the movie chasing the edges of the frame, unpacking its theory. The screen’s shape follows her thinking (during a drunken moment, it slides laterally, following her across the room): When she’s in the zone, fully possessed of all her many capabilities, even when they’re misdirected, the ratio stretches wide, expansive with possibilities. When she’s confined by her normal life, it shrinks.
Lucy is an ambitious woman straining against the boundaries of her existence on this planet. In that resistance, in that stew of training, instinct, grief, jealousy and passion, bouncing off the upper limits that others have set for her, she struggles, cracks and breaks. Spectacularly. But even in her lowest moments, in the craziest scenarios, Hawley and Portman never deny Lucy’s power, making room for a small sense of anarchic triumph to break through, with a wink and a wisecrack and a will of iron.