A military veteran who returns to his native Vermont suffering from bouts of amnesia. When he is accused of murder and lands in an asylum, a well-meaning doctor puts him on a heavy course of experimental drugs, restrains him in a jacket-like device, and locks him away in a body-drawer in a morgue. The process allows him to see into the future, and his own death.
After striking, semi-underground works with titles like Premonition Of Absurd Perversion In Sexual Personae, Part I and Remembrance Of Things Fast: True Stories, Visual Lies, director John Maybury made a near-mainstream debut with Love Is The Devil, an intense biopic of Francis Bacon. However, according to Matthew Sweet's book Shepperton Babylon, Maybury once laid hands on Richard Curtis and said the Love Actually writer-director had "ruined British cinema for people like me". While The Jacket, which arrives seven years after Maybury's "man to watch" notices for Love Is The Devil, was partially shot in Scotland and brings Daniel Craig back in a supporting role, it does its best not to seem in the slightest bit British, even if it does strive to avoid the straight genre tactics that would normally qualify it as full-on Hollywood product.
Still, this sort of head-scratching mystery-horror-thriller-psychodrama has become surprisingly commonplace recently, as if a former generation's ideas of weirdness have become everyday. It grabs attention with a Gulf War sequence in which Adrien Brody's soldier is shot in the head and declared dead, which opens the possibility that the rest of the film consists of his dying fantasies or brain-damaged delusions. Then, while hitch-hiking in snowy Vermont, Brody meets a drunk driver (Kelly Lynch) and a girl who might grow up to be Keira Knightley, before taking a lift from Brad Renfro, who impulsively kills a cop and frames him.
Again, thanks to that Tyler Durden vibe, it could be that what we see isn't what's actually happened, raising the possibility that the bulk of the film is about someone fantasising that he's fantasising. That way lies madness, and Brody is duly committed to an asylum where his therapists are played by Kris Kristofferson and Jennifer Jason Leigh, bringing much-needed character weight to thinly written roles.
Brody has done near-solipsistic craziness often, in both The Pianist and The Village, for instance (will he do a movie called The Something next?), but his nervy intensity keeps this walking the line between bizarro art movie and gimmick mystery. Knightley, getting out of period gear and talking American, tries to broaden her range and is arguably well-cast as a character who might well be imagined by the hero - but she has very much the token anorexic angel role. Kristofferson, Leigh, Craig (as a secondary madman) and even tiny bits from Lynch and Renfro fit far better into this game of ambiguities, alternating scary and pathetic while doling out clues.
As often happens when folk with artier ambitions dip a toe in genre, Maybury labours long to reinvent the wheel, the evocation of his earlier output suggesting he'd rather be making something square that doesn't roll so much. Eventually, you realise that The Jacket, as interesting as it is, doesn't know how overworked its basic ideas have become, since it's as locked in its own head as its protagonist, blithely unaware that the cineplex is crowded with the muttering, stumbling, time-twisting, paradox-jumbling likes of Donnie Darko and The Butterfly Effect. This even has the frosty New England look of a Stephen King knock-off, not to mention that old plot gambit about struggling with the present to avert a foreseen unhappy ending. Can it be that Maybury's cultural parameters remain set by Francis Bacon and experimental art cinema and don't stretch to the SciFi Channel, which runs stories like this every week on the Dead Zone TV series?
A gripping, affecting, strange movie - but oddly, it's just like too many other gripping, affecting, strange movies we've seen recently.