Film Reviews: Wednesday, March 02, 2005
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Adrian Brody prepares for a trip through time in a tiny box while wearing ‘The Jacket.’ (Paul Chedlow)
The Jacket
Starring Adrien Brody and Keira Knightley. Directed by John Maybury. Written by Massy Tadjedin. Rated R.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Back to the Future

Adrien Brody’s star turn guides you through the plot thickets of The Jacket.

By KRISTIAN LIN

Some actors become stars because they’re so meltingly handsome. Others achieve success by being so anonymous-looking that they disappear into their roles. Adrien Brody, with his stick-figure physique and aquiline features, falls into neither of these categories. Like John Turturro or William H. Macy, he’s an actor you won’t mistake for anyone else. Having such a distinctive appearance can be confining, even for handsome actors.
So far, though, Brody’s looks haven’t limited his range. He has a big grin that can indicate either a silly sense of humor or a serious mental disturbance, and his unpredictably live-wire presence can take many different forms that weren’t hinted at in his Oscar-winning turn two years ago in The Pianist. In The Affair of the Necklace, he nailed the dissipation of a hard-partying 18th-century French aristocrat who’s cool with another guy screwing his wife as long as there’s money in it for him. That part contrasted sharply with his focused turn in Bread and Roses as a fire-breathing social activist who stages Michael Moore-like publicity stunts to draw attention to the plight of domestic workers. And in Harrison’s Flowers, he channeled his energy into the darting, low-key movements of a war photographer who’s constantly watching his own back. Brody’s high-intensity approach doesn’t always yield good results (check out his ludicrous overacting in The Village), but clearly he’s an actor who keeps you on edge rather than putting you at ease.
This quality comes into play again in The Jacket, a thriller that gives him his first post-Oscar leading role. He plays Jack Starks, a Persian Gulf War veteran who’s wrongly convicted of killing a cop in late 1992 and sentenced to a psychiatric facility run by a doctor (Kris Kristofferson, playing a well-intentioned egomaniac to good effect) who thinks the best way to treat him is to pump him full of drugs, put him in a straitjacket, and lock him in a morgue drawer for hours on end. As an innocent victim trying to exert power over his new surroundings, Brody withdraws into himself and makes Jack unsettlingly quiet. He smartly underplays a scene in group therapy, where Jack subtly encourages a chaotic situation. Even better is another scene with a babbling inmate (Daniel Craig, an English actor showing off his considerable range) who cheerfully admits to having tried to kill his wife and now wants to buddy up to Jack. With a few well-placed veiled threats, Jack successfully creeps him out, and Brody’s menacing hush in this exchange is remarkable.
The story only picks up in earnest the first time he’s locked in the drawer. There, in the midst of his claustrophobic panic, he has a vision of himself turning up on the street in 2007, where he meets Jackie (Keira Knightley, doing a passable American accent), the grown-up version of a little girl whom he met — and gave his Army dogtags to — shortly before the cop’s murder. She gives him the startling news that he was found dead at his psychiatric hospital on the last day of 1992 — which he takes as a portent of his future. Out of solitary confinement and back in the present day, Jack realizes he has only a few days left to solve the mystery of his own impending death, and he carries out his investigation partly by arranging to spend more time in the drawer (hence his role in the patient uprising) so he can go back to the future. The trail of clues is complicated and impenetrable, and frankly I’m not sure what to make of the fact that a movie called The Jacket has main characters named Jack and Jackie.
The script by Massy Tadjedin is material for a schlocky cable tv flick, but director John Maybury isn’t satisfied with that. This English filmmaker with a background as a visual artist has one previous feature film to his credit, his 1999 Francis Bacon biography Love Is the Devil, which effectively tried to be a Bacon painting. Had he directed this movie the same way, it would have looked derivative, since many Hollywood thrillers imitate Bacon’s style. (Last year’s Taking Lives, for example.) He’s still overly fond of extreme close-ups of people’s eyes or mouths and of effects like fish-eye shots. Those occasional touches notwithstanding, Maybury treats the material with a good dose of austerity. This is a well-paced film, and he knows when to let up — the scene midway through with Jack and Jackie in bed together feels like a genuine moment of repose rather than the standard plot development that it is.
The movie’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t work as a schlocky thriller. There’s no supervillain to face down, and the way in which Jack ultimately comes to his death will strike some as disappointingly mundane. Yet the careful understatement given to the subplots with the head of the hospital and a sympathetic doctor (Jennifer Jason Leigh, coasting here, really, but still good to have around) make for unexpectedly good small-scale drama, as does Jack’s bid to retroactively fix Jackie’s screwed-up life. It’s these well-thought-out elements that lift The Jacket above its trashy Hollywood equivalents.


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