The Jacket

If not for a group of boisterous teenagers sitting a row away, I might have fallen asleep at The Jacket. I suppose I owe them some thanks, as well as film editor Emma Hickox, who has fed the movie into the same smash-cut Cuisinart every other thriller seems to get run through. Lulled into complacency, or perhaps drowsiness, we’re rudely jolted by a strobe of blood, screams, penguins (for all we know). This stylistic barrage comes to us courtesy of Jack Starks (Adrien Brody), a veteran of the first Gulf War, who has baffling flashbacks, flash-forwards, flash-sideways — he has a lot of flashes, is what I’m saying.

Shot in the head by an innocent-looking Iraqi boy, Jack somehow survives, and a year later winds up hitchhiking in Vermont, where he spots a retching alcoholic (Kelly Lynch) and her young daughter near their broken-down truck. He fixes the truck, then gets picked up by a guy (Brad Renfro) who, we soon learn, has a problem with cops. Something happens, and Jack finds himself institutionalized, at the mercy of experimental shrink Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), who likes to strait-jacket his patients and lock them in a morgue drawer. Cooped up in there, Jack becomes unstuck in time; he travels, either in time or in his head, to the year 2007 — fifteen years into his future — and screenwriter Massy Tadjedin doesn’t have the wit to have Jack discover that another Bush is in the White House presiding over another war in Iraq.

2007 doesn’t look much different from 1992; nobody Jack meets has an iPod or a photo phone, two things that would’ve looked fanciful if we’d seen them in a 1992 movie. In any event, Jack happens across Jackie (Keira Knightley), the girl whose mom’s truck he fixed in 1992. She’s all grown up now, miserably waitressing and then retiring to her trailer for a date with the bottle. She doesn’t recognize Jack, though Adrien Brody’s rather distinctive proboscis renders that unlikely. Jack must persuade her that he’s really Jack and not the Jack Starks who, in an alternate timeline, died of a head trauma on New Year’s Day, 1993. Perhaps reading this bit of plot — it gets even more complicated — is making you feel as though you have a head trauma.

The Jacket is a morose and bleached-looking affair, with depressing music by Brian Eno to match. Structurally, it’s Slaughterhouse-Five meets The Butterfly Effect. It’s not an actors’ movie, though the eclectic cast — including an underused Steven Mackintosh as a doctor, Daniel Craig as a patient who says he’s in for attempted murder, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Jack’s more sympathetic shrink, and, bizarrely, Mackenzie Phillips as a sadistic nurse — do what they can. Brody has never been much inclined towards the mainstream, so it’s no surprise that his post-Oscar resumé is long on movies like this and Dummy, and he does most of the film’s emotional clean-and-jerk but looks worn out from the effort. Keira Knightley does the sort of thing we’ll probably be seeing Lindsay Lohan doing in a couple years — drinking, smoking, going topless, and generally distancing herself from Disney. She’s good at it, but I still have to remind myself I’m not watching Natalie Portman.

In all, it’s another Warner Independent film that seems to have little point and less of an audience (the studio branch’s Before Sunset was an exception). I wasn’t aware of a burning need for an unofficial remake of Jacob’s Ladder, in which Vietnam vet Tim Robbins had similar disturbing mind-trips. And since Jack’s experience in Iraq (which takes up less than five minutes of screen time) is fairly irrelevant to what else happens to him, it seems a bit distasteful to use it as the starting point for a hackneyed guess-what’s-real thriller. (At least 2004’s Manchurian Candidate remake used the Gulf War for spooky political resonance.) It’s in especially questionable taste given that we now have people coming home from the current Gulf War with comparable mental trauma — or not coming home at all. Not that anything should be verboten as a film subject, but if you’re going to supply a backdrop that keeps taking you out of the movie, you’d better make sure the movie is compelling enough to go back into.

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