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The Jacket   C+

Warner Independent Pictures / Mandalay Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Maybury
Writers: Massy Tadjedin, Tom Bleecker, Marc Rocco
Cast: Adrien Brody, Keira Knightley, Kris Kristofferson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kelly Lynch, Brad Renfro, Daniel Craig.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Jacket earns high marks for its originality, its intriguing subject matter, and its new wrinkle on the tired old horse of time travel. The trouble is, that still doesn't add up to a satisfying movie. Interesting, yes. Visually striking in a very formalistic way, and certainly worth a few philosophical chats at the Starbucks afterwards. But the tremendous potential lying at its heart remains unrealized, despite good intentions and an apparently earnest effort. We're left not with the conundrum of its principal characters or the neatly arranged cause-effect loop it creates, but the nagging question, "Couldn't they have done better?"

Time travel is The Jacket's central conceit, and for that it has created a first-rate hook. To it, it attaches elements of romance, murder mystery, and hospital drama -- all of which fit together fairly well. But they never become particularly compelling, settling for workmanlike watchability when they should be grabbing us by the coat lapels. At least director John Maybury has a firm hand on his plot, and knows where he wants it to go. Adrien Brody play Jack Starks, a Gulf War veteran who survived a seemingly fatal gunshot wound to the head in Iraq and was subsequently cut loose by an uncaring military. Wandering the highways of his native Vermont, he suffers an amnesia-inducing blackout, only to awaken in a courtroom... on trial for murder. He remembers little of the crime, except that he could not possibly have done it. But the evidence against him is strong and he's deemed criminally insane by the court. They send him to a mental ward under the care of Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), who has a brutal form of "therapy" involving a straitjacket, an experimental drug, and a lengthy stint in the body drawer of the basement morgue.

The opening sequences are punctuated by intense, near-subliminal montages that establish a decent mood of paranoia. Aided by a fine performance from Brody (who rebounds from his embarrassing turn in The Village) and Kristofferson's subtle, layered antagonist, The Jacket seems ready to evoke plenty of Kafka-esque thrills. It takes a further turn when the combination of drugs and isolation propels Starks forward in time, leaving him free and able to act again. The year is 2007, where a young girl he met on the road before his arrest has grown into a troubled woman (Keira Knightley) for whom he instantly falls. He also learns some disturbing facts about his past -- namely that he died some four days after his "treatment" at the asylum began. It all stays reasonably unified, thanks to Maybury's direction and a structure that comfortably incorporates numerous genres at once. The time-travel notions are particularly juicy, focusing as much on how one lives with preordained events as it does the usual conceit of how (or if) one can work around them.

The trouble is that while the film's various parts all stay coherent, they rarely command our attention. Too much of it -- the burgeoning romance, for example, or the battle of wills between captive and tormentor -- relies on perfunctory expectations rather than any real momentum. The Jacket holds the promise of gripping storytelling before us, but never quite delivers on it, hitting dramatic beats that can't find the power for which they seem intended. The finale stumbles into a saccharine cop-out, and though set up well by the preceding structure (and wrapped in the thinnest hint of proper enigma), it still feels like the film's quirky promise has been betrayed.

That being said, Maybury's style is still unique, as is the impressive way he balances all the elements on his plate. Jennifer Jason Leigh comes galloping to the rescue more than once, playing an asylum doctor with a growing interest in Starks' case. Her scenes with Brody are among the film's best, and make a fine counterbalance to the brief, harrowing shots of him alone in that claustrophobic drawer. If The Jacket had strung a few more such moments together, it might have had us. Sadly, it settles for mediocrity when boldness is called for, using its assets to hedge its bets rather than going for broke. You can be as interesting as you like -- frankly, we need more movies with The Jacket's aspirations -- but that won't mean much if you forget to be good in the process.

Review published 03.04.2005.

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