Slippery slope 

A review of The Jacket (R)

click to enlarge A pensive Adrien Brody contemplates his second - death in - The Jacket.
  • A pensive Adrien Brody contemplates his second death in The Jacket.

The Jacket (R)
Warner Independent Pictures

The time-travel thriller The Jacket opens with scratchy, jumpy images of a night battle -- American soldiers, 1991, the bombing of Iraq. Adrien Brody is Jack Starks, a kindly sergeant with a soft spot for kids. When he tries to reach out to a scared Iraqi boy, the boy panics and shoots him in the head.

This is the occasion of Jack's first death. Medics are about to zip him into a body bag when an attentive nurse notices his eyelids flickering. "I was 27 years old the first time I died," says Starks, a warning that things to come might not be exactly as they seem.

Recovered but left with amnesia, Starks is released to the Vermont countryside where we see him next, stopping on the side of a snowy road to assist an inebriated mother (Kelly Lynch) and her little girl, Jackie. Starks and the child exchange meaningful glances and before he goes, he gives her his military dog tags. Within moments, Starks is picked up by another driver (Brad Renfro), chased by a state trooper and implicated in the cop's murder. Confused and unable to explain himself in court, he is sentenced by a judge to Alpine Grove, a nice name for an institution for the criminally insane.

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Alpine Grove might as well be Frankenstein's castle with its stone walls, gray atmosphere and lack of modern amenities, except for the perpetually glowing television in the corner. A creepy nurse, grossly overplayed by Mackenzie Phillips, walks around scowling and, yes, poking the patients with a stick, saying things like, "What are you two yapping about?" No surprise, then, when evil Dr. Becker, played by a grumpy Kris Kristofferson, begins subjecting Jack to middle-of-the-night treatments involving being strapped into a full-body straitjacket, injected with antipsychotic medication and jammed into a long metal drawer. He is merely "peeling away the layers of hate," says Dr. Becker, who, we learn, has killed several patients with this gruesome treatment. After all, "You can't break something that's already broken."

Yeah, and you can't blame good Dr. Lorenson, played with nervous intensity by Jennifer Jason Leigh, for looking the other way as Dr. Becker tortures Starks. She, after all, has a dark secret of her own.

To reveal any more of the plot would ruin the good moments in this otherwise jumpy, sloppy and uneven story. All you need to know is that Jack, when trapped in the drawer, has flashbacks and flash-forwards, visions of what has happened in the past and what is to come, including his second death. Prominent in his visions is an unhappy, pretty young Goth woman -- little Jackie all grown up -- played by Keira Knightley. Together, she and Starks plumb the mysteries of his consciousness, of the mental hospital and Doctors Becker and Lorenson.

The Jacket, for all its gaping logical vaults and irregular pacing, isn't completely terrible, largely because Brody is such an appealing screen presence. His big brown eyes emote despair, terror, doom and affection, keeping the viewer involved, and he has a wonderfully wry, weary sense of humor. Director John Maybury's highly stylized vision is interesting at moments and inexplicable at others -- the extreme close-ups of Kristofferson's craggy face and hairy nostrils, of Brody's tortured pupils, are grotesque and intriguing at once.

Vermont in winter looks like hell, as does Jason Leigh in big, unattractive "hey, look, I'm a doctor" glasses. The Jacket careens over icy roads to a semi-heartwarming conclusion, with nary a moment of subtlety along the way.

--Kathryn Eastburn

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