The Jacket

By Carl Whinder

It appears that barely a month passes without the release of a film that questions the nature of identity and perceptions of reality, however for every Fight Club and Memento there is an Identity or The I Inside. That said there were high hopes that The Jacket would bring a fresh and inventive take on the psychological thriller. Director John Maybury has a long history in British avant-garde cinema, having worked with Derek Jarman, and his only feature approaching the mainstream is 1998's  Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon. The Jacket stars Adrian Brody and Keira Knightley, the former having given an Oscar winning turn in The Pianist and the latter finally getting her chance to test her acting credentials. If this were not enough the film is produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney’s Section 8 production company. However it comes as a huge disappointment to have your brain gently prodded rather than vigorously poked. In fact the only revelation – as is usual in these films – is: ‘is it really that easy to write a Hollywood psychological thriller’?

Having miraculously survived a bullet to the head during the first Gulf war, Veteran Jack Starks (Brody) intends to return to his native Vermont. On his way home events conspire to see that he is convicted of a crime he may not have committed and is placed in a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. Here he is experimented on by Dr Thomas Becker (Kris Kristofferson) who is testing the powers of sensory deprivation. During his time in the jacket, locked in a mortuary drawer, Jack experiences a jump forward in time, from 1992 to 2007, where he meets Keira Knightley’s beautiful but disenfranchised Jackie Price. It is in this timezone that jack discovers the time of his own death and must, with the help of Jackie, attempt to ascertain the reasons why.

The first half hour hints towards the film this could have been, as themes are opened up and an ethereal tension pervades every bleached out shot. On an aesthetic level the film works, ostensibly real yet peculiarly unfamiliar. Narrative arcs begin to explore and expose the nature of masculinity and its effects. Male orchestrated violence is juxtaposed with the passive and kind manner of Jack. Firstly in an attempt to show compassion in that most violent of aggressively masculine pursuit, war, a young boy shoots him. Then after helping a mother and her daughter fix their car he is framed by a near neanderthal hilly-billy for the slaying of a traffic cop. Any brutality, whether it be war, torture or murder is enacted exclusively by men. Women, on the other hand, are depicted more positively, from Jennifer Jason Leigh’s good-natured Dr Lorenson to Knightley’s kind but damaged Jackie

The slip in Jack’s grip on reality is nicely played out, as the viewer and Jack struggle to locate meaning and reasoning behind his shifts in time. But the film doesn’t work hard enough to convincingly suggest that Jack’s sense of reality may be warped. When he catches the bullet, the film seems to want to hint towards an ambiguity over whether he survived the shooting or not, but this is never realised. Similarly when he is convicted of the shooting it is largely due to his confusion over the events yet flashbacks clearly show he wasn’t involved. The Kafkaesque quality of Jack’s situation is enhanced by the films depiction of the powers that be exert in dictating reality. Jack is found guilty because of his unstable memory rather than any solid evidence, whilst the inmates of the asylum are continually drugged and told they are deluded by the oppressive staff entrusted with their care.

It is at this mid-way point that the film begins to head up blind alleys and the time-hopping romance between Jack and Jackie begins to take over. Maybury appears to lose steam, either through fear or boredom, and starts tying up loose ends with obvious and lazy resolutions. For example, Jack confronts Dr Becker in 2007 who tells him that the last time they met Jack reeled off the name of the previous four victims of becker’s experiment. It comes as no surprise that the next scene involves Jack, out of the drawer, reciting the name of these four men. In a similar example of idle scriptwriting Jack reveals to Dr Lorenson in 1992 how she cures one of her patients having being told how in 2007, in the previous scene. These may be plot spoilers but they demonstrate how forced and contrived these elements are – their only purpose appears to be to pad out the plot and service the narrative.

The Jacket clearly wants to be a cross between 12 Monkeys and Jacob’s Ladder, but whilst it shares similar themes with other head-scratching thrillers such as Fight Club and Memento, approaching issues of male identity crisis and the fragile nature of reality, it is hamstrung by these plot devices and a pat resolution. Shame, because this promised to be one of the more interesting films of 2005.
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