I’ve been tussling with this movie ever since I saw it two nights ago. I still can’t decide if The Jacket gets close to something like greatness, or if it’s just a (sometimes accidentally) funny mess. At this point, I lean toward the former assessment, but can’t quite overlook the latter.
This is a difficult film. Noting that it has similarities to the director’s cut of The Butterfly Effect, with nods to Jacob’s Ladder, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and even Altered States, isn’t all that helpful.
Allusions to all those films are here, but few have anything to do with what The Jacket is finally all about. Where The Butterfly Effect is free with its various alternate realities, this film is more focused. Jacob’s Ladder is evoked only in the loosest possible sense. Eternal Sunshine has a thematic connection in the sense of clinging to a supposedly erased memory. Strangely, no one seems to have picked up on the Altered States connection, even though screenwriter Massy Tadjedin and director John Maybury clearly use a similar technique to unlock the mind of their main character, and the lead-ins to those scenes where he moves from one reality to the other are handled almost identically to those in the Ken Russell picture.
But The Jacket is really just drawing on these works to meet a different end. In other words, for all the films it draws from, the movie is ultimately as much unlike those films as it is like them. If that sounds complex, that’s because it is.
Whatever else The Jacket is, it’s about as far removed from your average multiplex fodder as can be imagined. The premise alone is a bit daunting.
Adrien Brody stars as Jack Starks, who is shot in the head during Desert Storm and at first is thought to be dead. When it turns out he isn’t, he’s patched up and sent home, where he becomes a kind of aimless drifter who meets a young girl, Jackie Price (newcomer Laura Marano), and her alcoholic mother, Jean (Kelly Lynch, Joe Somebody), who are stranded on the road with a broken truck. Jackie seems immediately drawn to him and he gives her his dog tags when she asks for them, but the mother is abusive and leaves him standing there after he gets their truck back on the road. Soon afterward, he’s picked up by another driver (Brad Renfro, Ghost World), who promptly murders a policeman and pins the crime on Jack, whose head trauma keeps him from remembering what happened.
Unable to defend himself, Jack is sentenced to an institution for the criminally insane, where he’s experimented on by Dr. Thomas Becker (Kris Kristofferson), whose “pioneering” techniques involve drugging his patients, putting them in a straitjacket and shunting them into a morgue drawer for long periods of time.
One of the weakest points of the film is the question of just what the clearly sadistic Becker thinks he can accomplish with this procedure. In Jack’s case, however, the experiments cause him to both fill in the gaps in his memory and propel him into the future — a future in which he is long dead from a seemingly inexplicable head injury suffered at the asylum. Jack’s question becomes whether or not he can change that future before suffering the fatal injury.
This may sound like stock sci-fi time travel stuff, but it’s handled in an untraditional way. And while the film abounds in more or less minor plot holes — some of which are unfortunately comic — it does manage to tackle the subject of time travel with unusual complexity. It also does so with a rare amount of emotional resonance.
When Jack meets and falls in love with the grown-up Jackie (Keira Knightley), they end up making love — a fact not lost on him when he pays a call on the 10-year-old Jackie in a subsequent scene. Fortunately, Brody is a good enough actor to pull out all the deep and strange emotion that would be inherent in any such meeting. And the film is savvy enough to uncomfortably tap into this by having young Jackie tell him she remembers him (though whether from the encounter on the road or some kind of “future recall” is left up to the viewer).
Director Maybury, whose previous films all seem to be of the art-house variety, keeps a firm hand on the material that’s important to the film’s emotional punch, and he employs a style that can be intentionally disconcerting. Jack’s “future” encounter with Becker (who knows Jack is now dead) is masterful in its use of close-ups — especially the ones on Jack’s mouth, which convey Becker’s inability to look his former test subject in the eye.
If Maybury is less assured in dealing with some of the plot mechanics, I’m inclined to cut him some slack based on what he accomplishes elsewhere. And the film’s ending, which is certain to be the subject of endless debate among viewers, is one of the bravest I’ve seen on a movie in some time, not in the least because it’s deliberately open to interpretation.
The Jacket may be flawed, but it’s also richly compelling. Rated R for violence, language and brief sexuality/nudity.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke