The most chilling sequence of The Jacket, the new not-quite-science-fiction film starring Adrien Brody as a brain-damaged Desert Storm veteran held in a psychiatric institution for a crime he didn’t commit, actually takes place beneath the opening credits. I’m not sure whether the night-vision imagery is actual wartime footage or an incredibly savvy replication of the same, but if you’ve seen the real thing you won’t forget it — tiny, monochromatic human figures are targeted and obliterated in sudden smears of light representing the limb-tearing, flesh-melting explosions of battle. What’s most sobering is the degree of abstraction between the visceral chaos of war and the sanitary videogame-style view of the battlefield that this footage represents — U.S. military forces, operating at the kind of comfortable remove from the action that only the finest industrial technology can guarantee. The question is immediately posed: what does this kind of experience do to a man?
In the film’s opening sequence, an Iraqi child nails soldier Jack Starks (Brody) in the head with a bullet fired from a handgun, setting the rest of the story in motion. Jack dies from his injuries (he says as much in voiceover), but miraculously comes back to life before anyone gets around to zipping up the body bag. He gets shipped back to the U.S., and there his troubles really begin.The Jacket is about a specific injury to a specific soldier, but it seems emblematic of the experience of going to war and returning to home — a not completely welcoming environment — fundamentally changed. It’s about a certain callousness in the way these men are treated — the ways in which people who are already suffering are made to suffer more at the hands of government lackies who claim moral and medical authority but who project only smug superiority.
That’s not to say it’s new stuff. The Jacket is plainly derivative ofOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Jacob’s Ladder, juiced up with interesting visuals, fine performances — and some chronological monkey-business. During Jack’s incarceration, he’s treated by one Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson) who has ideas about treating violent patients that are more punitive than therapeutic: he shoots them full of drugs, restrains them in a straitjacket, and imprisons them in a morgue drawer for hours at a time. And it’s during his time in the drawer that Jack enters a sort of alternate reality. He meets Jackie (Keira Knightley, apparently applying for the job left vacant by the young Helena Bonham Carter), a stranger who seems vaguely familiar. Once he figures out how and where and when he first met her, Jack starts using his time in the jacket to struggle toward a happy ending.
John Maybury’s direction is its most flamboyant in the little visual flourishes that give the film its juice — the whip zooms right into Brody’s eyeballs as his out-of-body experiences begin, aided and abetted by Brakhage-style distressed celluloid. Elsewhere, the mood is pretty deadpan. What keeps it rolling along, even as the storyline becomes more tortuous, is Maybury’s command of the details, accentuated by nuanced, very-widescreen photography of the sweet-faced Brody and the waifish Knightley by D.P. Peter Deming (you get a sense for Maybury’s respect for the human face when you realize that his most famous work to date was the music video for Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”). There’s an unobtrusive score by Brian Eno. By the time Jennifer Jason Leigh shows up in a supporting role, it’s clear how seriously you’re meant to take all of this. And if the narrative in itself isn’t immensely satisfying, there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in just watching the way it unfolds, moment by moment. (In this regard, it’s like the B-movie version of prestige project Birth, another ambitious-verging-on-pretentious screenplay adroitly lensed by a director with impressive formal command.)
[spoilers begin here]
“I don’t give a shit. I don’t want anyone to make any money out of this.” John Maybury on The Jacket.
Now, what you probably don’t want to know on the way into the movie is that when Jack hooks up with Jackie, it happens in the year 2006, strongly suggesting that the combination of drugs and sensory deprivation has given him the ability to travel through time. Now, I found a transcription of a priceless press roundtable with director John Maybury from just before the movie opened which begins with a writer asking about his favorite time-travel stories and getting the response, “This isn’t a time-travel movie.” He then floats the idea — half-joking? — that Adrien Brody’s character did, in fact, die on the battlefield in Iraq. Now, in the world of the film I suppose that’s possible. Almost everything we see could be Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge hallucination inside a troubled, war-addled mind. Then again, unless this fellow is a novelist, how does it make sense that he’d concoct an elaborately science-fictional narrative riddled with characters whom he’s apparently never met? It’s also possible, and perhaps more likely based on the evidence in the screenplay, that the main character checks out of this world sometime during his incarceration, conjuring a fantastic death-dream involving the redemption of a mother-and-daughter couple he met at the side of the road. Or maybe The Jacket really is a time-travel movie and Maybury doesn’t know it or is loath to admit it.
Whatever. The film’s real interest seems to be torture — mean-spirited this-is-good-for-you torture of the kind that’s been in war-related news headlines lately. Whether Maybury considers it time-travel or not, the story is contrived to deliver a comeuppance to its chief torturer and to coax an impossibly upbeat denouement out of abject suffering. The Jacket isn’t a fully realized film, but there’s something compelling about Maybury’s interest in the material, which is far from literal — I’m not sure how I feel about his wholesale theft of “Mothlight” as a backdrop for The Jacket’s end credits, but just as Brakhage was interested in giving new, frenzied celluloid life to the insects dead in his light fixtures, it seems to be Maybury’s intention to reanimate a casualty of war through the imagination of cinema. Even in this context, The Jacket doesn’t really cohere, but it may be interesting to watch how Maybury’s ideology works itself out on screen if he does wind up having any kind of Hollywood career.