Every generation has its event. Tom Brokaw coined the phrase “the greatest generation” in reference to the outpouring of national camaraderie and empathy that World War II inspired; the baby-boomers had Vietnam. To a generation coming of age in the new millennium, no single event seems as potentially galvanizing. Only time will tell whether their defining moment will be 9/11, the re-election of Bush II or perhaps some other monumental signpost still to come. Last year’s trenchant update of The Manchurian Candidate connected the first Gulf War to the contemporary culture of fear and mistrust, and it’s interesting to note the number of recent films—both personal and political, from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Code 46—that deal with trauma, memory and illusion. Call it the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Generation.
Add to that list The Jacket, a Warner Independent release starring Adrien Brody and Keira Knightley. Except The Jacket, a relentless, kinetic mess of time-travel mumbo-jumbo, exploits the trope of its hero’s amnesia to set in motion a tired rip-off of a dozen better films, including Paris, Texas and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.The movie hinges on the Gulf War’s effect on the mind of one soldier, Jack Starks (Brody), and opens, like the Candidate re-make, with some creepy night-vision scenes from 1991. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end.
Released from duty after a bullet to the head momentarily flatlines him, Jack is set adrift in his native Vermont.Hitchhiking along the road, he stops to help a young girl and her mother (Kelly Lynch) jump-start their car. Then he’s picked up by a stoned freewheeler (Brad Renfro) who shoots a cop.He’s pegged for the murder, but his fraught, forgetful testimony lands him not in jail but in a mental institution.Inside, a vicious doctor (Kris Kristofferson, in full Charlie Wade-mode) starts Jack in on some harsh alternative therapy, jacking him up with sedatives and locking him in a morgue cabinet.
At some point during these straitjacketed little time-outs, Jack begins to hallucinate that he’s back on the outside.He meets a girl named Jackie (Knightley), who appears to be the grown-up version of the young girl he met on the side of the road that fateful morning.In one of the script’s many preposterous turns, Jackie takes the shivering, sketchy Jack back to her place, offers him the food in her fridge, before announcing that she’ll be taking a bath.
Eventually, Jackie helps Jack learn that he died in the asylum fifteen years ago, and he’ll have to keep getting sent into the lock-box for trips into the future if he wants to avoid dying (again) in four days.Or something.The script, as directed by John Maybury, seems fairly uninterested in unraveling its own tangled logic. In the film’s climactic push, Jack realizes that he must escape from the asylum long enough to find the nine-year-old Jackie’s house, and tell her mom that he’ll be dead in a few days, but he’ll come back in fifteen years to sweep her daughter off her feet, so don’t worry.
What keeps The Jacket from descending fully into the truly absurd depths of last year’s The Butterfly Effect are the unwavering performances of its leads. For Knightley, this is as grubby a role as she’s ever played and her first stab at an American accent. For Brody, this joins with The Pianist and The Village as another physically demanding martyr/madman character.The two actors generate a decent chemistry together and manage to give this cobbled-together stinker whatever tiny shred of credibility it possesses as a romance.
– Jesse Paddock