Moody thrillers that go for the intellectual jugular are becoming more popular these days, and it would be a great change of pace if they didn’t fail as often as they succeeded? When it works, i.e., when the dark style melds perfectly with the storyline and tone, coupled with a clever plot that cheats the audience out of what will happen next, the result can be a masterpiece of suspenseful intrigue like Memento or the emotionally resonant Donnie Darko. But a film can also get too preoccupied with the pretentiousness of its supposed smartness and end up a crapper like The Butterfly Effect. And in the case of artsy director John Maybury’s The Jacket it is, sadly, more of the latter.
The always-haunting Adrien Brody plays Jack Starks, a Gulf War veteran whose head wounds are causing him to have problems with amnesia. This mental condition, a plot device that is never especially well fleshed out, makes him easy prey for a haphazard murder frame-up upon his return home. Starks is found guilty and thrown into a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. Then, as if things couldn’t get worse for this poor bastard, he is subjected to the illicit treatment of a slightly off-kilter Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), whose idea of therapy is to pump Starks full of drugs, strap him into the titular straight jacket, and then shove him into a morgue drawer. Nice.
Well, whatever convoluted ideas the good doctor had about therapy, poor Jack begins to suffer from hallucinations almost immediately, and then is seemingly propelled 15 years into the future. There he encounters the only character that is skinnier than he is: Jackie (Keira Knightley), the older version of a little girl he encountered prior to his conviction. When Jack finds out from her that he’s going to die (has already died?) back in the past, they try to unravel the cause in order to stop the death of past-Jack. It’s not as confusing as it sounds, but, ironically, that may have been part of the problem.
Where it tries to walk the line between subjective and objective truth, as any good intelligent film should, The Jacket merely ends up with perplexity. The introductory plot point concerning Jack’s head injury during the war would seem to cast doubt over whether or not he’s ever really experiencing his jaunts to the future and back, except that Jack brings back real, empirical evidence in order to help thwart his own death. If anything was intended to be purposefully ambiguous, it shows up later simply as bad continuity.
The film appears to forget the intricacies of its plot by the second half in order to explore the emaciated, tragic romance between Brody and Knightley and their attempts to find out what really happened to cause his imminent demise, and thus abruptly turn the movie into a tragic discourse on mortality and the foreknowledge of one’s own death. The thing is, this could have been The Jacket’s saving grace … if it had worked. Adrien Brody’s performance, as per usual, is nuanced and well-delivered, but given the limitations of the screenplay, it never particularly hits hard. Knightley simply overacts bountifully. The entire cast suffers from obtuse and confused motivations, weighed down by things that the script should’ve been able to prop up, and in this regard, Maybury is guilty of pushing style over substance.
Where the story succeeds, the characters fail, and when the characters earnestly try to rise to the occasion, it won’t matter because the audience will have lost patience with all the pretentious obfuscation. The result is total mediocrity. Maybury and his writers should’ve paid more attention to 12 Monkeys and Jacob’s Ladder—two films The Jacket most strongly evokes, and which handle plot and chronological delineation in much better fashion. Watch them instead.
Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.
The Jacket / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()