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The Jacket (2005)
Director: John Maybury

review by Jonathan McCalmont
Spoiler Alert!
I don't know... you wait a decade for a decent psychological thriller to come out and then ten turn up at once. The last time we saw such a glut was the 1990s and the long drawn out slide into soft-core porn that started with Sharon Stone and ended with Shannon Whirry (passing through the mind-searing horror of Bruce Willis getting his cock out in Captain Jonathan Archer's pool). Nowadays you can't go to the cinema without running into a Momento, an Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, a Donnie Darko, a Butterfly Effect or the under-rated Cypher. In a genre that's produced so many notable films in such a comparatively short space of time, true innovation is hard to come by. In giving art house director Maybury (a man who allegedly raised his fists to schlock-com messiah Richard Curtis for his terrible impact upon the British film industry) a bold and ambitious script, clearly the producers thought they had a good chance of extracting that last drop of A-positive from the basalt deposit. Sadly, while The Jacket has its moments it's a film that's doomed to be over-shadowed by other works.

The film tells the story of Jack Starks (a wonderful Adrien Brody), a Gulf War veteran sent back to the US after a head wound that left him dead. Walking along a snowy road he makes two encounters that change his life. Firstly, he meets Jackie, a little girl with a wasted mother. Secondly, he meets a man who gives him a lift and ends up framing him for killing a policeman, sending Starks to an insane asylum. In the asylum, Starks is given an experimental illegal therapy that involves drugging him, putting him in a straitjacket and locking him in a morgue drawer for extended periods of time. Jack starts hallucinating but then finds himself transported to what turns out to be a grown up alcoholic Jackie (a pretty but ultimately unremarkable Keira Knightley), 15 years in the future where he learns that he is soon to die. Starks then tries to prevent his own death by jumping between the past and the future, on the way helping to set Jackie's mother on the right path and his doctor to get through to a small boy with mental problems. Jack and Jackie fall in love in the future and the film ends with Jack dying in the present and being transported to the future where the film ends with him in a happy Dr Jackie's car.

This film's major selling point is also, perversely, its main flaw; namely the fact that it is deeply uneven. The film borrows visually from the works of Davids Cronenberg and Lynch (for the initial dehumanising videogame-style gunsight night-vision footage of the Gulf War and the hell of being locked in the drawer wearing the urine and blood soaked jacket), but then tumbles into the under-lit intimacy of indie slacker romance films passing through an asylum that looks too much like those in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Twelve Monkeys. The plot starts off looking like a reworking of Jacob's Ladder then conducts a romance over multiple points in time like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and flirts with K-PAX by having Starks convince his doctor of the truth of his words, before returning to an ending that leaves you wondering whether Jacob's Ladder wasn't the right call in the first place because the film might well end with the death of Starks. Possibly. And that's a bit like Donnie Darko isn't it?

If you put together all of these elements you see a director who really doesn't have anything particularly new to say about the genre. The film explores the idea of reality and delusion bleeding into each other but tries to remain anchored in the human story of Starks. So setting aside the question of the innovation of the film, is it worth going to see?

I'll offer a guarded yes. The film's very affecting, effectively evoking Starks' terror at being shut in the jacket for the first time and playing out Jack's romance quite nicely up until the end. It's very well paced and Brody's performance and charisma really keep you interested in Jack right up until the final credits roll. However, the two main components of the film, namely the blurring of the line between reality and delusion and the romance, both have significant question marks hanging over them.

Knightley is as pretty as ever as the deeply unhappy and lonely Jackie but her part is seriously under-written. We know she's unhappy because she acts drunk a lot and screams hysterically from time to time. But once Jackie and Jack get together the unhappiness disappears and unhappy but loved-up Jackie is completely identical to the happy but single Jackie we see at the end of the film. While Knightley's very easy on the eyes, she lacks the acting talent to really sell her character, a more robustly written role would have sold the romance and Starks' increasingly desperate attempts to 'fix' Jackie's life. As it is, I think that Jackie's a blank slate emotionally... any feelings evoked about her are only evoked because Starks works so well as a protagonist. We don't care about Jackie or her relationship and life; we care about Jack in so far as he's in love with her. In fact, I'd go so far as to say what feeling we do have about Jackie stem from the sweetness of Laura Marano as little Jackie (in fact, the whole little Jackie/ big Jackie thing comes close to being a bit creepy as Starks' displays his love for Jackie even when he meets her as a child), rather than Knightley's shouting, smoking and drunk acting. So the romance doesn't quite work, but what about the head fucking?

The Jacket differs from many psychological thrillers in that its head fucking isn't ultimately anchored in a form of reality and explained away. The truth is that we never know whether Jack's alive or dead and when it was he actually died. The schmaltzy ending and the final white-out would suggest that the ending is his dying mind conjuring up some kind of fantasy, but as Maybury pointed out, the whole film could be seen as the final actions of a dying brain or the soul of Starks passing through purgatory into heaven after redeeming himself by saving Jackie, her mother and a little boy. Maybury tells the story completely straight, playing it for realism rather than any kind of obvious metaphor. How you react to this kind of film is ultimately dependent upon how you, as an individual, react to ambiguous films. Some of you might like the fact that it doesn't offer any easy answers, others might rage at the fact that a completely ambiguous meaning is identical to a lack of meaning while others might content themselves with a nice story that offers some kind of emotional closure without really specifying which.

On the whole I'd say it's worth a look but I'd probably wait till it comes out on DVD because, at the end of the day, other films do the same things this film tries to do but better and more intelligently.
The Jacket

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