Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Jacket (John Maybury, 2005)

Take a look at the images above. They are examples (among many) of what makes The Jacket so interesting at times. They are from the quick montage sequences that play out as Adrien Brody's character Jack Starks "travels through time". I put that in parenthesis because it's never quite apparent whether the character actually time travels, or whether he's merely experiencing an illusion (or delusion) of the concept; all possibilities pretty much remain open. But what is interesting here, regardless of what is actually going on, is the way the concept of time travel is contextualized in these fleeting, almost subliminal moments in a way that so many movies dealing with time travel neglect entirely or gloss over: they convey the sheer abysmal, abstract horror that the experience of such a process would likely reap on the human psyche. Too many movies, ones more concerned with sprawl and gamesmanship, are saddled with lame, pat side effects accompanying their time travel: nosebleeds, earbleeds, headaches, whatever. But in The Jacket, you might as well lose your mind.

The plot of the movie ostensibly deals with Brody's character Starks, a Gulf War veteran living in Vermont in 1992 after surviving (or did he?) a gunshot wound to the head from a child during combat, for which he was thought to be dead before miraculously blinking back to life on the medics table. As we catch up with him he is hitchhiking the snowy Vermont roads, and stumbles upon a little girl and her mother stranded on the side of the road with car issues. The mother is babbling incoherently and throwing up, clearly either intoxicated or heavily medicated. Starks helps the girl rev the car back to life. He forms something of a close bond with her in the few minutes they spend together on the road, and Starks gives her the dog tags from around his neck before making his way on. Soon after he hitches a ride with a young redneck (Brad Renfro), and eventually blacks out and and suffers a bout of amneisa - a side effect of his brush with death during war - before waking up to find that he's being arrested for the murder of a cop who was shot to death in the middle of the street.

Starks is sent to a mental institution, where he becomes the subject of experiments performed by Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), involving Starks being injected with various drugs, tied up, and shoved into a morgue drawer, where haunted memories flood into his head through some Brakhage-ian filter, and seemingly form a portal that allows his conscious to travel 15 years into the future while his body remains in the morgue in 1992 (it plays very similar to what Lost would do with its Desmond character a short time later). These scenes are among the best in the movie - effectively claustrophobic, utilizing tinny acoustics and various cramped angles that lend a greater sense of urgency and dread. And Brody has the perfect eyes for this kind of scene.

In 2007, Starks (or his conscious, or whatever) meets Keira Knightley's character, a bitter, unpleasant alcoholic with emo tendencies, in front of a coffee shop, and hikes a ride with her. He ends up back at her place because he has nowhere else to go, and discovers (by finding his dog tags) that she is the grown up version of the little girl he met on the road back in 1992. He also comes to discover that he is to be murdered on Januray 1, 1993, only a couple of days from the time where he's still laying in the morgue drawer, and so the thrust of the second half of the movie becomes finding out how Brody's character is killed, by who and under what circumstances.

But the movie isn't really a murder mystery, and neither is it really a time travel thriller. It's not even really a romance either, which it basically positions itself as when Brody and Knightley begin sleeping together. I mean it certainly takes all of those elements of the story seriously, at least on its surface, but what does one make of the many obscure seeds and signs of something else entirely afoot that are planted with consistency all throughout? There are way too many of those to tie the movie down into any one particular reading or genre, creating an elusiveness that only adds to the movie's overall oddity. Obviously the prospect of the whole thing being a Jacob's Ladder-like dying fever dream of a man killed in war hangs over the proceedings (an alternate ending on the DVD confirms this), and then there is also the strangest scene in the movie, where Dr. Becker relates to Starks the story of a former patient who raped and strangled a seven year old girl, and convinced the courts he was sick by climbing into the trees and howling after his heinous act. Throughout Becker's story, the camera is intently focused on Kristofferson's mouth and eyes, sometimes laying them over top of each other, giving the story an air of having far more importance to the narrative than it should. Also during the story Starks acts particularly nervous and twitchy, his eyes rolling around in the back of his head as he makes some ambiguous gestures with his hands. Becker's story ends with this line: "I asked Ted then, if he could remember what the little girl he'd slain was wearing. "Oh yes," he said. "I remember it. I remember it well." And in light of this piece of dialogue, perhaps the movie's title makes a little more sense. The vague creepiness that lies behind the idea of Brody's character romancing a girl he befriended when she was a small child comes into focus a little more. It almost seems in this scene that the filmmakers are setting the movie up to be some sort of Lost Highway-esque psychogenic fugue taking place in the head of a man coming to terms with his illness and horrific crimes, but aside from one ominous shot later on when the camera catches Brody peering up at some trees, it's never suggested again. It's simply one of many transient nuggets that exist in the story, present one minute and gone the next, seemingly designed solely to open the movie up to as many interpretations as possible.

Of course this approach means that it's difficult to discern whether the movie actually has anything to say or not, and I'm not sure that it does at all, but at least it manages to offer up some interesting twists and ideas on the genres it's playing with. Late in the movie, some of the pretzel logic that generally accompanies all time travel movies sneaks its way in, and the scene has to do with Starks - still trapped in the morgue drawer in 1992 - confronting Dr. Becker in 2007, determined to learn how he gets murdered. Becker claims to know nothing of how Starks got (or gets) killed, and he in fact only has one sole memory of the man, but it's one that haunts him. The memory is of Starks emerging from the morgue drawer one day and whispering the names of men who Becker had failed to cure during his career. "Well who do you think told me about them?" says Starks to the '07 Becker. "You did. I'm in that drawer right now. You're haunting yourself, old man." It's a haunting exchange and scene, again highlighting only eyes and mouths, and in it the movie offers up one of its most interesting ideas - the notion of time travel not as the opportunity for knowledge or repair or destruction, but as a form of psychological self-abasement.

The Jacket was released in theaters March 4, 2005 to a tepid critical reaction and very poor box office numbers (the other two movies released the same day, Vin Diesel's The Pacifier and the Get Shorty sequel Be Cool, got just as bad if not worse reviews but made boat loads of cash), and quickly faded away into that ever growing belt of unoriginal, processed Hollywood cinema that comes and goes year after year and is all but forgotten about. It's better than that. Whether the movie is at the end of the day a success - that is to say, whether it ultimately amounts to much more than a jumble of intentional ambiguities and half-formed schemes - I'm still not sure. But it's slyly haunting, never uninteresting, and not without ideas. It's nearly equal parts hackneyed trainwreck and pure inspiration, and that alone makes it more interesting than many movies.


Unknown said...

What an awesome review of this underrated gem of a film.

Y'know, when I first caught up with this film on DVD and I wasn't all that crazy about it because it felt like a retread of JACOB'S LADDER but I've watched it a few times since then and my appreciation for what it tries to do grows. There is some really interesting things going on in this film as you point out and I think, for me, the film is about the notion of reality - what is real? And how does that perception change from one person to another? What might be reality to you may not be to another.

In addition to Adrien Brody's performance, I also thought Keira Knightly was quite good. I'm not a huge fan of hers by any stretch but I thought she hit all the right notes in this one and really did an excellent job.

Wow, thanks for taking a look at this. I hadn't thought about this film in some time. I might just have to give it another viewing soon.

Drew McIntosh said...

Thanks J.D.! It sounds like we had similar experiences with this movie. I saw it when it was first released on DVD, and while I did find it engaging, like you it played to me as not much more than a poor man's JACOB'S LADDER. Moments from it stayed with me though, and subsequent viewings have definitely brought out its unique qualities.

If you had to tag an overarching theme onto the movie, the idea of subjective reality you talk about would certainly be a major part of it. It also plays with strains of guilt, redemption, escaping the past (or the inability to) and wiping the slate clean. But I think ultimately its approach is a little too piecemeal and unfocused to tie any of this up into a sturdy whole. I think its far more interesting examined in its individual bits and the ideas behind them.

I agree with you on Brody and Knightley, both were good here (though her accent gets a little iffy in moments), and I also thought Kristofferson and Daniel Craig made the most of their supporting parts, Craig in particular really throwing himself into a role that basically ends up being completely meaningless.

Unknown said...

Good call on Kristofferson and Craig... I had forgotten that the latter was in this one. And it was nice to see the alway awesome Jennifer Jason Leigh in there, albeit briefly.

I certainly agree with you about appreciating the individual bits of this film. That is a good way of looking at. The film does seem to lack focus or coherence at times but, in a way, it almost lends to the film's hallucingenic or dreamy quality - the whole what is real, what isn't vibe.

Drew McIntosh said...

I think it's a double edged sword, J.D. in that the ambivalence and lack of cohesion can enhance the movie when it's focusing on its hallucinogenic thriller aspects, but it also tends to trip it up when it tries its hand at being a love story, murder mystery, redemption story etc., and for me its never really quite able to sustain any one effect.

I do ultimately like it quite a bit though, because when it's interesting it's very interesting.