Saturday, October 31, 2009
Let’s get one thing absolutely straight from the outset: I watched this movie for one reason and one reason only (and the more alert amongst Horrorthon readers have probably already figured out what that reason is). In one of his commentary tracks, writer-director Nicholas Meyer (who had nothing to do with this movie) voiced what’s probably the best definition of movie stardom (as distinguished from mere movie acting) I’ve ever heard: “An actor pretends that they’re somebody else,” Meyer said, “while a movie star pretends that somebody else is them.” Along precisely these lines, The Jacket, a mediocre horror/fantasy thriller, answers the burning question, “What if a strung-out, hard-drinking, chain-smoking Vermont diner waitress was Keira Knightley?” It’s a question I found very intriguing (after four or five period-piece Knightley costume dramas in a row); the answer isn’t nearly as satisfying as I had hoped, beyond the visual/auditory freak-out of the crazy stunt-casting. (There’s another hidden-in-plain-sight super-famous British star in this movie, whose performance is vastly more interesting than Knightley’s; more below).
The Jacket is one of those movies during which you keep asking yourself why it got made, since the story barely makes sense and the scenes keep failing, one after the other, each leaving you less interested in continuing to watch than the one before. In nearly all cases, movies like this have one single, very clever idea, and it’s easy to imagine that idea surviving into each one-page summary and cell-phone agent discussion and studio meeting, making just enough of an impression on all concerned that nobody stops the project from moving forward (or forces the script to get substantially re-written, which is definitely what should have happened in this case). When one of these scripts -- an ineptly-constructed narrative with a single worthwhile concept nestled inside it -- gets the kind of high-profile, big budget production that was lavished on The Jacket, the burden invariably falls on the cast to try to salvage the weak story, and you can spend the whole movie watching the painful spectacle of talented, famous actors working as hard as they possibly can, trying in vain to jump-start one dead battery after another. In this case, English rose Knightley joins Adrien Brody (the youngest Best Actor winner in Oscar history) and established, beloved pros like Kris Kristofferson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kelly Lynch and Brad Renfro in trying as hard as humanly possible to keep this lead balloon of a story afloat.
Brody plays Jack Starks, a Gulf War veteran who suffered a traumatic gunshot wound during a combat exercise and was discharged from duty after recuperating from his near-death experience. (Why do protagonists of lame movies like this always have names like “Jack Starks”?) Apparently, Starks’ primary goal upon resuming civilian life is to wander freezing New England roads in the depths of winter, lugging his belongings in a single rucksack – I know that’s what I would do. There’s no relief from the bad weather: the entire movie takes place in such a relentlessly cold, snow-blown, overcast, bleak climate that I was compelled to put a sweater on, while watching; I don’t think I’ve seen so many reddened faces, frosted windshields and clouds of fogging breath in one movie since A Simple Plan. While hitchhiking through the freezing Vermont woods in December 1993, Starks helps a falling-down-drunk single mother and her young daughter, whose truck has stalled; he inexplicably gives his Army dog-tags to the little girl before accepting a ride from a friendly stranger who gets pulled over by a highway patrolman, trapping Starks in a Fargo-style escalating violent confrontation (depicted over the course of the movie in the requisite BLAM! BLAM! staccato flashback style) that results in his being tried for murder, found not guilty by reason of insanity (Gavel pounding! Cell doors slamming! BLAM! BLAM!) and institutionalized within a mental hospital situated in the coldest, bleakest winter landscape imaginable. (These sequences were actually shot in Scotland, which explains their icy, nearly arctic atmosphere.)
Starks is subjected to an unconventional, borderline-criminal treatment by eccentric shrink Thomas Becker (Kristofferson) involving extended periods of sensory deprivation within a morgue drawer, strapped into the titular straightjacket while heavily drugged -- and, during these sessions, experiences the extended hallucinations that form the bulk of the story (and represent the aforementioned “clever idea” that got this movie made). In his dreams (or are they?) (yawn) Starks is transported forward to 2007, where he immediately discovers the little girl with his dog tags, who has grown up to be Knightley. With her help, Starks must essentially triangulate a (dull) murder mystery from two temporal vantage points, while solving several life crises for surrounding characters along the way. The time-displacement concept is initially intriguing, but it never leads anywhere worthwhile, and the inevitable revelations are more tiring than satisfying. Throughout the movie, the actors work their hardest to imbue this undercooked, badly-thought-out material with pathos and dramatic weight, and one sympathizes for their efforts, but it’s to no avail. (Adrien Brody’s unique ability to convey morose suffering is exploited shamelessly.) Additionally, the movie fails what I call the “belief test:” at some point in every fantasy/horror/sci-fi story, the characters have to confront the uncanny; they never believe what’s in front of them (which is reasonable; neither would we) and nearly all fantasy stories can succeed or fail solely on the strength or weakness of these revelatory “I now believe the impossible” catharses. The Jacket does particularly badly in this regard, since the inept plotting depends on so many “belief test” scenes in a row that the cumulative effect renders the entire cast of characters so collectively gullible that you want to sell them a bridge. The time-twisting secrets and reveals tediously unspool until all questions are answered (by means of some unusually bad time-travel logic) and the movie swerves in its final moments into a misplaced elegiac mode that only emphasizes how little empathy and human interest it’s generated.
The actors are all good, nevertheless, and the freezer-burned photography is consistently presentable...and there’s straggly-haired, over-mascara-ed, grunge-dressed, trailer-trash diner waitress Keira Knightley, whose supernaturally perfect face is, if anything, even more mesmerizing to watch in this unusual context. Knightley’s American accent (she sounds like a whiskey-voiced, methed-out heavy-smoker) adds to the effect wonderfully. And, just because girls should be exposed to the same caliber of British eye candy as boys, the movie also includes an unexpected and welcome turn by Daniel Craig (as another mental patient), nearly unrecognizable in shellacked black hair and another perfect American accent, his James Bond physique hidden beneath loose hospital-issue pajamas. Watching beautiful British actors slum as skillfully as Craig and Knightley (whose mouth is open nearly the entire movie, deploying her trademark pout) is a fun exercise, but there’s not much else to recommend The Jacket; it’s a joyless enterprise whose central idea would hardly be worth so much snowbound drudgery even with the benefit of the rewrites it conspicuously never received.
[ADDENDUM: As discussed, Daniel Craig's work in this movie is so wonderfully chameleon-like that I had to post a clip of his first scene, just so you can see what I'm talking about. Check out his portrayal of a nebbishy American mental-patient -- about as far from James Bond as you can get!]