A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG-13, 102 mins.
Jack Starks: Adrien Brody / Jackie: Kiera Knightly / Dr. Becker: Kris Kristofferson
/ Dr. Lorenson: Jennifer Jason Leigh / Dr. Morgan: Jake Broder
/ Jean: Kelly Lynch / Stranger: Brad Renfro / Nurse Harding: Mackenzie Phillips
I think that of all the film genres, psychological thrillers have a lot to prove. More than any other genre, they truly work the best when they offer up a fascinating or intriguing premise with sufficient, gripping and surprising payoffs. Recently, some of the best thrillers I have seen had the perseverance to offer up some intrinsically attention-grabbing material to set the plot off in motion to a conclusion that allowed me to leave the theatre fulfilled. Some thrillers, like M. Night Shyamalan’s SIGNS or THE SIXTH SENSE, are films that fit that criteria rather well, whereas others like THE VILLAGE or THE FORGOTTEN are the complete opposite. Those two latter films are ones that I call PWP movies – or ones that contained a premise without payoff.
The new thriller – THE JACKET – is a film with a wonderfully enthralling premise that launches you into its story very quickly and does a thorough job of establishing itself. The basic plot is both beguiling and captivating. It also has performances by several lead actors that are equally great. They, more or less, make us convinced that the sheer inanity of the story that they are involved in could be half-assed true. Yet, THE JACKET is one of those thrillers that seems cobbled together with too many ideas and too many convoluted plot points. Here is a film that does an exemplary job of immersing its viewers in its lurid world and narrative, but then it kind of gets too confused and meandering along the way to go anywhere truly entrancing with it. In this way, THE JACKET is both fascinating and frustrating. It has a great premise that does have payoff, but it’s the lead in to the payoff that seems a bit off course.
I think that, ultimately, that is what makes THE JACKET sort of lose its way – it simply tries to be too many things at once. The film is clever, if not completely far-fetched, and does generate our buy-in fairly easily. It entices us early on and then tries to spin the story off in directions that we may not have otherwise seen. I will give this thriller a considerable amount of credit for being daring and original, not to mention that it places a lot of demands from its viewers. There is nothing more I detest than a film that panders down to its audience and spells everything out succinctly and clearly for them. THE JACKET is definitely a film that you have to pay discrete attention to for fear of being lost in its intricacies. Even if the film is a grab bag of pretentious and ridiculous rubbish, as long as it allows for our basic belief in it, then it has already half way achieved success. I quickly became engulfed in the film’s proclivities at being otherworldly, supernatural, peculiar and eerie and it provided many moments of introspective thought on my part, even hours after seeing it. Not many films can brag about having that transfixing power. If only the film was a bit more streamlined and focused.
THE JACKET plays like a hybrid piece of cinema and seems put together by various other pieces of genres and concepts. The film sort of plays like a warped and twisted ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST mixed with equal parts THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT and JACOB’S LADDER. The film is about mental disorders, delusions, past traumas that manifest themselves in the present and, yes, time travel, albeit with a bit of a different twist. Oh, the movie is also about life after death, at least I think, which is made very clear by the first lines in the main character’s voice over narration that begins the film. When we see him being shot in the head, left for dead, and we hear him reflect, “This was the first time I died,” then you are left asking yourself just what in the h-e-double hockey sticks is going on here??? I guess that this, initially at least, explains this film’s strange allure.
The film opens during The Persian Gulf War in Iraq in 1991 at the point when the American offensive was at its most fever pitched. Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) makes a mistake early in the film by walking up to a seemingly innocent civilian boy in the desert, who subsequently pulls out a gun and shoots him right in the head. Of course, medics around him think that he has no chance of survival and pretty much leave him for dead. However, the doctors very quickly realize that their initial judgements of their mortally wounded patient may have been premature. Starks, it seems, is still alive, if only in a near vegetated state.
The film then flash-forwards a year later and shows Jack to be a man that seems physically healed, but is still emotionally and mentally wounded by the trauma. He moves around with relative ease, but his memory is filled with nagging holes. One winter afternoon while hitchhiking along a narrow highway he encounters a stranded little girl and her drug-up mother. Their dilapidated pick-up truck has broken down. He manages to fix the truck and get the two on their way relatively easily.
However, Jack makes a catastrophic error with the next person he meets. He soon manages to get a ride with another driver who seems to be drifting along wherever the rode will take him. The two are soon pulled over by a police officer and, one thing leads to another, and the officer is shot and killed and this results in Jack being implicated in the crime. Yet, the question is – did he or the other man actually commit the crime? Nevertheless, Jack is sentenced to the Alpine Grove psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. If you think that I have given all of the film’s tantalizing secrets away, trust me…all of these incidents happen within the first ten minutes of the film.
While in the hospital the real meat and potatoes of the film starts to kick into overdrive. A daring, cunning, yet self-obsessed, doctor named Becker (the very good Kris Kristofferson) begins experimenting on Jack. However, his treatment, a term that shall be used rather loosely, does not just predicate drugs and therapy. Nope, Dr. Becker’s plan for recovery is much more sinister. At least from what I gathered, the treatment involves drugging up Jack and then putting him into a tight, all-body straightjacket after which he is then put inside a morgue drawer. Okay, maybe intense solitary confinement is not the way to cure mental diseases, but never mind. Becker has a method to his madness. He feels that by locking up Jack in the claustrophobic drawer that it will draw out and kill his violent tendencies. Well, the violent ways are not really cast out, as I am about to explain.
Okay, this next part is going to take a Herculean leap of faith on your part to fathom. For some miraculous and (for what I witnessed) completely unexplained reason, while Jack is in the jacket he is able to time travel. No machine. No flux capacitors. No getting to speeds in excess of 80mph. Nope. He just manages to “will” himself to become a temporal traveler. Okay. Sounds fine to me. Now, if this was not altogether odd, then Jack’s discoveries that he makes in the future are. You see, he manages to travel into the year 2007 (why 2007, I don’t have the foggiest) and actually hooks up with the little girl whose car he repaired on that snowy road years ago. Well, she is now blossomed (played by the gorgeous Kiera Knightly) and Jack gets romantically involved with her. If that was not enough to complicate things, he soon learns that he died in 1993. Obvious paradoxes and all things utterly befuddling then ensue.
Now, is Jack really time traveling, or is this just some odd manifestation of his Gulf War injuries? Also, does he physically time travel by just thinking about it, or does the jacket or morgue drawer explain the phenomenon? I dunno. THE JACKET does not take great pains at all to explain the how’s of its basic premise, and maybe that’s for the better. I think that it more or less succeeds in establishing our belief in its terribly insane and far-fetched concept. Like THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT, which is also about causality and time teleportation, the less you think about the mechanics of the film, the more you can become enthralled by THE JACKET’S story.
As I have stated, once you go beyond the film’s contrivance into the unexplainable, then you can allow yourself to be sucked into its story. I guess, on its levels, I enjoyed much of THE JACKET in terms of the way it develops its themes and characters and, amazing, makes them feel real and emotionally grounded despite the supernatural themes of the overall narrative. Brody’s performance is kind of amazing here, as he brings a puzzlement, curiosity, and near manic state of paranoid confusion and bewilderment to all of the proceedings. You may not completely support the film’s plot as believable, but Brody here impeccably makes us buy into him as a troubled persona.
However, I think that the two trickiest roles in the whole film are by Kristofferson and Knightly. Kristofferson's work here is interesting as he does not play it on the levels of a deranged mad doctor that owes more to horror films. Rather, he plays the role fairly straight and genuinely thinks that he is doing some good. There is a quiet and thoughtful malevolence to this antagonist. I think that Knightly’s work here as the young woman that re-emerges in Jack’s life is a career high performance for her. She not only plays a completely convincing stoned out American twenty-something (all remnants of her thick accent are gone), but she also manages to create a decent amount of chemistry with Brody, all of this while trying to convince us that she would actually be willing to believe Jack as a time traveler that is looking for meaning in his life.
The film sort of gets bogged down by its own contrivances a little too soon and eventually runs out of gas. The film had such exemplary pacing for its first act that you really become entranced by what the other two thirds will offer. However, it becomes both wildly too elaborate and complicated for its own good and instead of maintaining a decent amount of focus, it sort of journeys from one time traveling altercation to the other. The film, although very complex and tense, does grow repetitive – Jack gets drugged, goes into morgue drawer while wearing jacket, time travels to the future, uncovers sinister secrets and little clues, awakens in the past and later gets drugged up, puts on jacket… and so on and so on. THE JACKET is in need of some good old-fashioned script doctoring. If ever there was a thriller that needed a few more drafts before it was given the green light for production then THE JACKET would surely be one of them.
Yet, I am going to give this film a somewhat lukewarm and positive recommendation. It does have a lot of positive ingredients (standout performances, an ingenious setup with a modest payoff, and a kinetic, disjointed, and dark visual style that kind of viscerally gives us an impression of what is going on in Jack’s mind). In terms of other time and reality bending films, THE JACKET is not as good as last year’s underrated THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT and is no where near as effective as JACOB’S LADDER, a small masterpiece of the macabre. Yet, I appreciated THE JACKET’S scope and willingness to be different and unique and, overall, it’s a fairly professional, polished, and generally entertaining sci-fi thriller. In a cinematic world where most films in this genre are about explosions and special effects, it’s nice to see one that is more psychological and less physical. My advice – don’t think too literally about THE JACKET and instead enjoy it on its modest levels of audacity and occasional wit.