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The Jacket

I guess The Jacket is a movie.
I was eating popcorn, which I only do when I’m at the movies, and I’d paid to see this thing, so it had to be a film, right? Right?
So why do I feel as though I watched a feature-length commercial, one of those pondering and incomplete pieces of art advertising perfume or Victoria’s Secret models? It might be dressed up like a movie, might feature some great actors and stunning scenes, but The Jacket is a film in the same way that an elaborate jingle is a poem – Unconvincingly.
Compelling without truly being interesting, The Jacket is the kind of styling exercise that that will leave you feeling numb, dumb, abused and confused. Like a shell game, you will find yourself guessing (incorrectly) that there must be more than meets the eye, and when you’ve finally accepted the base stupidity of the film it will still drag on for at least another 15 or 20 minutes just to punish you for choosing the wrong theater door.
Then you will reconsider the whole thing. What if The Jacket wasn’t really a film at all, but some complex psychological experiment, a new form of narrative that doesn’t rely on those old trustworthy conceits like character development and plot? What if it was art, not intended for consumption for its entertainment value?
So you will examine the experiment, which masquerades as a film about a Gulf war vet who returns to the states after being fatally but not terminally wounded in Iraq in 1991. Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) goes from the Middle Eastern desert to the snow-capped mountains of Vermont. He’s cast off and lost, the same sort of vet we’ve seen in movies from Rambo to Jacob’s Ladder, and we recognize a common motif here linking the thing to other movies.
Chalk one up for the movie theory.
Jack stops to help a mother and daughter while hitchhiking through Vermont in winter. Mom is a washed out and drunk hippie and her daughter is a precocious little tyke, and Jack wiggles a few wires under the hood of their truck and – abracadabra – the thing starts right up. We may be able to accept that jack has mutant abilities that allow him to revitalize dead batteries by touching a vehicle’s radiator, but no one hitches in Vermont in the middle of winter just for the fun of it.
Chalk one up for bad the “bad movie” theory.
Later that day a yahoo in a station wagon heading for the Canadian border picks up Jack. When a cop stops them, a gun battle ensues and Jack is shot in the head as his ride speeds off. Jack is found guilty for the slaying – which goes toward the “bad movie” theory – and then is sent off to an insane asylum, where he’s subjected to a bizarre experiment at the hands of Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson). Injected with a hallucinogenic anti-psychotic medicine (?) and put into a morgue drawer, Jack has a vivid time-traveling fantasy where he meets and falls in love the young girl he’d helped in 1991 in the year 2007 
A little weird, true, but here you might begin to suspect a Jacob’s Ladder rip-off or even a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest style turn of events.
Director John Maybury kicks into high gear at the insane asylum, tormenting Jack with a sort of religious zeal usually reserved for Mel Gibson films. Confined to a straight jacket and put into the drawer, Jack hallucinates up a storm. Maybury pushes Brody’s expressive face to its limits and keeps going until you can see his personality coming undone. The psychotic imagery of theses scenes rival any I’ve seen, making Ken Russell’s Altered States look naïve and simple-minded.
Chalk one up for art film.
Expectations rise when you hope for some combination of Jacob’s Ladder and Altered States, but suddenly the film veers toward a sort of Ghost love story. The woman he meets in 2007 – the grown girl from 1991, Jackie (Keira Knightley) – falls in love with the shiftless drifter, and they begin tracking down Jack’s mysterious death in ’91.
The love element develops too quickly and feels contrived, but it’s Jackie’s acceptance of Jack’s story that feels most phony. It feels so utterly fake, in fact, that you will probably hold on to one of your earlier theories (that the movie is playing with narrative forms) far too long, thinking that the whole thing may just be a mad delusion.
There’s potential in the impossibility of the film’s love affair; the way in which reality is presented as flexible; and the disruption of the narrative flow that implies the film has big things to say. The film is self-conscious about this ambiguity, I think, and when a female doctor asks Jack to explain what the heck is happening, he replies, “I’ve seen a time that’s not this time.”
Well, that explains everything. Here are the keys to the mental institution and my car. Try to be back by midnight, okay?
The Jacket is, in the end, a movie. It just isn’t very good.

 

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