Film/TV » Film Features

Bad Medicine

The Jacket may disturb your sleep.



On the night I saw The Jacket, I had a fitful sleep filled with strange dreams, all variations on the film. So filled was my head with loose images (some from the movie, some from my ill sleep) of psych-ward terrors, time travel, and Adrien Brody's huge, expressive face that I could scarcely sort them out; fact from fiction from science fiction.

The Jacket is a mind trip with moments and imagery and language that continue to haunt and disturb. After a night of tossing and turning and waking and thinking that I too was confined to a straitjacket, I can't help but afford John Maybury's chiller at least a few good words.

Brody is Jack Starks, a veteran of the first Gulf War, who, in 1991, briefly experienced death on the battlefield when shot in the head by a scared child he was trying to help. A year later (1992, remember), Jack is a drifter, walking long, lonely, snowy highways and hitching for rides with nowhere in particular to go. One fateful day, he helps a drunken mother and cutie-pie daughter with their stalled truck, only to be shooed away by the intoxicated shrew. But before he leaves, he gives the young girl, Jackie, his dog tags. Soon after, his next hitch goes awry when the driver shoots and kills a police officer and sets the scene to look like a wounded Jack did it. Jack maintains his innocence, but psychiatrists testify that his war trauma must have pushed him to the act. So, to the asylum we go. It's not pretty. There are TVs, but they all seem to be showing strange, hallucinogenic programs and patients shuffle about meaninglessly. Worst yet, it's run by Dr. Becker, played by Kris Kristofferson in his not-nice mode. Becker has an unconventional treatment that involves intense antipsychotic drugs and confinement while straitjacketed in a morgue drawer. This is all kept on the down low, since these methods, we are told, were banned in the 1970s.

A curious phenomenon occurs while Jack is in the drawer. He finds himself able to travel 15 years into the future to 2007. Is this a hallucination? A dream? Or is he really traveling? It doesn't matter because he's able to score with the little girl who took his dog tags and who grew up into a pert but grungy Keira Knightley (who went medieval on us as Guinevere in last year's King Arthur). With her help in 2007 and that of a kindly, sensible shrink back in 1992, Dr. Lorenson (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Jack is able to piece together enough information to learn that, in 1992, he's about to die. The only questions now: how and why, and how to stop it.

In my dream, there was a bunch of extra doctors running around, each with different motives for imprisoning and deluding Jack. And I guess, now that I am awake, I realize that this is a valid concern on my part. Why? Why do Dr. Becker and his associates think this cruel and unusual treatment is useful, especially on a rational, well-spoken patient like Jack? We are asked to believe that they really are doing this in the patient's best interests, but they scowl and laugh like movie villains and abuse Jack almost gleefully. I guess that in a world of Abu Ghraib, motiveless, well-intended atrocities committed by supposedly "good guys" shouldn't surprise me, but in a film without a strong narrative, I wanted some explanations.

The Jacket is an effective, if bland, thriller; well-acted on the whole (though Knightley works awfully hard at wounded and dark, in a role that Jason Leigh might have played 15 years ago) and well-paced as it unravels its sordid mystery. Hollywood doesn't quite yet know what to do with elegantly attractive Oscar-winner Adrien Brody, what with his leading-man smile but gaunt frame and gi-normous nose. The Jacket reaffirms him as ideal for roles as tortured, bedraggled survivors. It will take a good romantic comedy to further test his mettle.

I just wish that, with the time-jumping and psychological hoo-ha, The Jacket were more clever. No M. Night Shyamalan twists and turns. Nothing Hitchcockian here. You would think that a movie about dementia and traveling through time would offer at least one shocking revelation. But no. Like Jack, we too wander this movie's highway looking for a ride.

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