The Jacket is one of those movies where you spend the whole time wondering what you're watching. Is it a war-haunted supernatural thriller Ã la Jacob's Ladder? Is it a nuthouse exposÃ Ã la Shock Corridor? Is it a countercultural nuthouse exposÃ Ã la One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? Is it a brain-fried psychological thriller Ã la Memento? Is it a time-travel thriller Ã la 12 Monkeys? Or is it an I-see-dead-people ghost story Ã la The Sixth Sense? Come to find out, it's a "Twilight Zone" episode crossed with an episode of "Highway to Heaven," but director John Maybury does a good job of distracting us from such user-friendly sources with arty atmospherics. And Adrien Brody, still wasting away to nothing, retains his compelling screen presence.
Here, he's Jack Starks, a Gulf War veteran who, in the movie's opening scene, gets shot in the head by an Iraqi child he's trying to play GI Joe with. And that's only the start of Starks' trials and tribulations. Pronounced dead, he turns away from the white light and winds up, 12 months later, on a wintry highway in Vermont, where he's framed for the murder of a state cop, found not guilty by reason of insanity, sent to an institution for the criminally insane and, as part of his rehabilitation, strapped into a straightjacket and locked in one of those filing-cabinet drawers where they store bodies in a morgue. "You can't break something that's already broken," says the doctor (Kris Kristofferson) who presides over this peculiar form of therapy.
And that's where 12 Monkeys comes in. From the darkness of his premature grave, Starks launches himself onto the astral plane, a flight that's conveyed with one of those hallucinatory montages capable of causing seizures in those audience members with pacemakers. Finally, he plops down in the year 2007, where he soon meets a young woman (Keira Knightley) he'd briefly met as a young girl (Laura Marano) on that highway in Vermont, before the incident with the cop. Her name's Jackie. His name's Jack. The movie's called The Jacket. And if you think we're being jacked around, you may be right, but nothing is made of the similarity between the names. It's just another of the red herrings swimming through the movie's plot.
Did Jack escape from the insane asylum? Or did he die there, not long after being committed? That's the riddle at the heart of The Jacket, and the movie does a decent job of delaying its solution, flashing forward and backward in time. When Jack learns that he only has a few days to live unless he can figure out a way to prevent his future/past death, we're on pretty familiar ground, having dealt with a similar problem in 12 Monkeys, not to mention Back to the Future. But Maybury makes the most of his freaky-deaky milieu ' one of those gothic ruins where it's always time for your meds and the patients are treated like lab rats. As an added bonus, Brian Eno has contributed a properly electroconvulsive musical score.
With his sensitive eyes and smooth skin, Brody isn't exactly an action hero, but he has a way of sneaking up on us, getting under our skin. And he knows how to play a victim. If The Jacket ultimately doesn't have enough going on upstairs to rank with the movies it keeps reminding us of, this soulful young actor nevertheless communicates what it's like when your whole life has become a near-death experience.