“Life begins with the knowledge of death,” says U.S. Marine sergeant Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) in the new psychological thriller “The Jacket.” If that’s true, then what does life end with? In Jack’s case, the answer is blunt trauma to the head. Again.
“I was 27 years old the first time I died,” he says in the film’s opening narration. It happened in 1991 when he was shot in the head by a young Iraqi boy. Miraculously, Jack recovers, and what could have been a political war thriller takes a sharp right turn. “The Jacket” completely abandons its compelling Gulf War prologue, and other than drawing a simple parallel with a later plot development, the promising scene has no real significance. This neglect is emblematic of the entire film. Rather than adding depth, it just uses the moment as an excuse to give Jack amnesia, and sets “The Jacket” off on an uncertain course.
Nine months later, Jack helps an alcoholic mom and her eight-year old daughter Jackie fix their broken-down truck. The young girl takes Jack’s dogtags as a souvenir of his kindness. His second intense knock to the head follows an incident later that day where a police officer ends up dead and Jack is soon locked up in a mental institution.
They don’t take kindly to cop killers in the looney bin, and Jack is viciously strapped into a straightjacket and forced into a morgue drawer by the angry Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson, in another patented crusty old man role like his “Blade” character). When Jack’s jacket somehow transports him into the year 2007 to meet Jackie (now a 23-year old alcoholic waitress played by Keira Knightley) again, the movie really begins its mind-bending narrative.
Director John Maybury is not afraid of close-ups on features like eyes and teeth. His off-putting visual style is unique and lends a surreal quality to the film from the beginning. Brody is not a typical-looking leading man, but his pained expression is effective as a sort of blank slate filled with humanity. Is Jack really going back in time, or is it all in his mind? “The Jacket” cannot make up his mind. Maybury wants to have it both ways, because the time travel and Jack’s delusions just do not add up.
This does not have to be such a problem, though. We don’t necessarily need everything spelled out for us. If there were more of an emotional connection between Jack and Jackie, then it wouldn’t matter. But Jackie is underdeveloped, reduced to a few one-dimensional boozy traits she shares with her mother that are supposed to easily define her. Into the already complicated screenplay, writer Massy Tadjedin even tries to cram a love story that doesn’t work. And it’s a creepy kind of one at that, since she was only eight years old when they met just months ago!
What follows is a clumsy segueway into a love scene that lasts a whole 30 seconds and dissolves from one shot to the next. The director obviously has no faith in his love story, so he does a series of quick fleshy shots and moves on. You can almost hear the studio executives in the back of the theater saying, “This isn’t working, let’s show some skin and get back to the mystery!” Speaking of the mystery, it takes only two visits for Jackie go from confused and angry skeptic to helpful detective, driving Jack around town to discover what exactly will happen to him on January 1.
And then there is the mysterious Dr. Becker. Why the hell, after all, is he drugging Jack and locking him up every night? Is he severely misguided and well-intentioned? Does he think he’s helping Jack in his own twisted way or is he brutally punishing Jack for being a cop killer? Maybe he is just rebelling against the “man,” Abu-Gharib-style. If the rules governing today’s mental health care system are too rigid for doctors, will they all start locking patients in morgue drawers? And can we blame Donald Rumsfeld for that too?
The movie ignores too many burning plot holes like this, and yet struggles to over-explain others at the same time. Maybury pretends to tie everything up, leaving a myriad of loose ends that are almost forgiven because the story speeds forward so quickly. The last twenty minutes are like a game of Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey on a bullet train, randomly picking plot elements out to clarify.
By the end, “The Jacket” abandons its more challenging plot puzzles for sheer sentimentality. Since it can’t make its mind about what kind of a movie it is, it just messily bottoms out. The film is a noble failure, though, attempting to be both a brainteaser and an emotional journey while never quite achieving either.