Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Jacket

The Jacket (2005) tries to be this generation's Jacob's Ladder (1990), and while it has a lot going for it, including some interesting ideas and quality performances, it doesn't match the latter's effectiveness or hallucinatory weirdness.

Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) is a Gulf War Vet suffering from amnesia as the result of a near-fatal head wound in Iraq. After an ambiguous incident in 1992 results in a dead cop, Jack is sentenced to Alpine Grove Mental Hospital, where he undergoes a controversial treatment by Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson) in which he is restrained by straight jacket, heavily drugged, and locked in a morgue chamber for several hours. In total darkness, he has visions of going to the year 2007, where he learns from Jackie Price (Kiera Knightley), who he met when she was a little girl, he will soon die from blunt head trauma. With knowledge of his impending fate, Jack traverses both time frames to alter his destiny.

Jacob's Ladder and The Jacket both feature shell-shocked war veterans (Tim Robbins played a Vietnam Vet in the former) who begin questioning what's real and what's not. Altered states of perception and drug use play roles as well, but Jacob's Ladder was intricately complex, frightening, and involving. Tim Robbins didn't know what to believe, kept waking up in different realities, and was surrounded by demon-like creatures threatening him every step of the way. Adrien Brody, after figuring out the gist of his situation, adapts too easily, finds people too accepting of his explanations (If a mental patient told you to use electric shock on a child because he learned in the future it cures his condition, would you immediately try it?), and winds up in a plot that wouldn't have been out of place in a more dramatic Back to the Future.

To continue with the Jacob's Ladder comparison, we never strayed far from Robbins' perspective, so we shared his confusion and terror. Here, there are too many scenes involving the supporting characters establishing what the reality is and losing any sense of menace and paranoia. Dr. Becker is setup like a mad scientist with evil designs, but the truth is more banal than that. Too often, the film feels safe because the danger is absent.

Furthermore, the threat of the cocooning treatment gets dropped about halfway through. At the start, when Jack is first put in, he is manhandled, drugged, restrained, and locked away in darkness, and those initial instances are intense and claustrophobic. When he learns what happens in the chamber, Jack attempts to get locked in, negating its threat and mystery. Questions about how this treatment allows time travel and how Becker thinks this helps his patients are never addressed.

This is a shame because The Jacket has a lot going for it. Daniel Craig's character has a line about television being able to soothe the troubled mind, and that's a great ironic line. The film opens with night vision footage of the war in Iraq intercut with press conferences of President George H.W. Bush and top brass, and later, Jack says the future is not much different from the past. Considering both time periods have a Bush in the White House and a war in Iraq, the line gets a laugh. Director John Maybury seems to being going for a comment on the American nation's psyche as fragmented and disoriented. No progress is being made just as no progress is made with Jack's treatment. Even Jackie is going nowhere. Her mother was an alcoholic, and now, she's a working poor waitress with no future. Past traumas can destroy the future.

The Jacket makes me want to revisit Jacob's Ladder more than anything. That film took chances, but this one resorts to tired storylines about using future knowledge to undo the past. Instead of being paranoid, The Jacket is safe.

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