A great first line isn’t essential in a movie, but it can do so much to draw you into the story. The Jacket begins with Adrien Brody saying: “I was 27 years old the first time I died.”
From there, you’re hooked. But you slowly become unhooked as The Jacket’s implausibility and far-fetched supernatural time traveling plot become annoying and hard to follow.
Brody, the youngest ever Best Actor Academy Award Winner (for The Pianist) is Gulf War veteran Jack Starks, who returns to his home state of Vermont after suffering a gunshot wound to the head that left him with amnesia.
While wandering the deserted roads, he comes across little Jackie and her strung-out mother Jean, who’s car has broken down on the side of the road.
Jack fixes the car, and before he sends the two on their way, Jackie asks for Jack’s dog tags. Jack returns to wandering the road, and before long he is picked up by a guy who eventually gets pulled over by a police officer. Jack blacks out at that point, but finds himself on trial for murdering a police officer. He knows he didn’t do it, but he has very little memory of the day that can prove his innocence. He clings to one sure thing: the memory (but no proof) of a little girl and her mother by the side of the road. Jack is found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental institution.
Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson) routinely puts Jack in a straight jacket, medicates him and quarantines him in a body drawer of the morgue in the basement. It seems to be the worst possible punishment for an innocent man.
But in the drawer, in the jacket, Jack finds worlds of knowledge opening up to him. In the drawer, Jack’s mind is thrust into the year 2007, where he meets the grown Jackie (Keira Knightly), who is living a miserable strung-out existence as a poor waitress. Jack and Jackie discover that he is going to die in four days. Jack’s haunting the future, sort of. Or something like that.
Labyrinthine twists propel Jack through his nightmare, and there’s no end to the maze of unanswered questions in Massy Tadjedin’s script. Jack Starks has no memory, no family, and no reason to live, so he’s a sympathetically ambiguous character.
And Tadjedin and director John Maybury waffle on their portrayal of the hospital and staff at Alpine Grove, the mental institution. Are they evil and abusive, or are they genuinely trying to mete out misguided but well-intentioned help to the criminally insane?
Two nurses all but cackle hysterically as they violently shove Jack into the jacket and force him into the drawer.
But Dr. Becker, who initially appears to be as villainous as his nurses, has confusing moments of humanity, and his associate Dr. Lorenson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has nothing but good intentions.
All the good intentions in the world can’t help levitate an institution that’s portrayed as being far worse than a prison could ever dream of being. Which is it then: good or bad, abusive or helpful, evil or sound? Somebody needs to make up their mind. The crackbrained lesson The Jacket leaves us with: don’t ever go insane. Your punishment will be far worse than it would be if you’d committed an actual crime. You’ll be at the mercy of confused people, who don’t know if they’re good or bad.
The director’s portrayal of the stony cruelty and mad experimental freedom that goes on in modern mental institutions is so exaggerated, he risks losing his audience by straying too far from the realm of plausibility. Keira Knightly’s pointless nude scenes, and her inability to do an American accent without dramatically lowering her voice, make her presence jut out artlessly.
Maybury’s sobering palette of icy grays is lonely to the point of isolation; we’re left out of the movie completely. It’s harrowing and disturbing, and in the end there’s a token feelgood moment. But when it feels like a token feel-good moment, instead of one that’s earned, you’re left with an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s like being tortured and abused for an hour and a half, and then given a tootsie roll. Hardly a significant reward, considering what you’ve been through.
Grade: C. Opens tomorrow. Rated R, for violence, language and brief sexuality/nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.