Apocalypse Then and Now

'The Jacket' draws a line in the sands of time

It's always dangerous to make direct links between current events and pop-culture phenomena: So much time usually lags between the conception of a novel, record, or movie and its eventual release that such connections are, at best, coincidence. Let's just say that the small wave of time-travel movies that started last year with The Butterfly Effect is...interesting.

You remember The Butterfly Effect, right? Go back...go baaaack. That's the movie in which a hapless kid learns he can right a future wrong by going back in time and fixing it, only to create new horrors. (To dumbstruck NetFlix nerds, this is known as the movie in which cellblock-bitch-in-training Ashton Kutcher volunteers to go down on the Aryan Nation.) The same month brought the premiere of Primer, about two entrepreneurs who essentially figure out how to TiVo their lives--and discover it's not wise to monkey with the rewind button. The simultaneous arrival of these films was pure chance--a weird convergence of mass-market doldrums and Sundance trumpet blaring.

And yet: How striking is it that these movies should meet when the consequences of past events--and, for that matter, the impact of current actions upon the future--have triggered an amber alert of anxiety? If that sounds like a stretch, now comes The Jacket, a tricky thriller that makes the connection explicit from its very first images. Any contemporary movie that opens with grainy surveillance-cam footage of firefights and bombings and the words "Iraq 1991" is primed to toss a few grenades.

The hero, a Gulf War soldier named Jack Starks (Adrien Brody), takes a bullet during an ambiguous roundup of women and kids. As a welcome home, while hitchhiking across Vermont, he gets framed for a cop killing. Left without exculpatory evidence, he must sit on the witness stand as one military careerist after another vouches for his innocence--not because he didn't do it, but because, as a shell-shocked vet, he shouldn't be blamed for it.

Starks ends up in a mental hospital at the mercy of Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), a cold-eyed authoritarian whose treatments wouldn't raise eyebrows at Abu Ghraib. Becker's specialty is a kind of horror-chamber isolation tank, a human filing cabinet for straitjacketed patients on high-octane antipsychotics. Instead of breaking Starks's will, though, it causes him to have futuristic visions of a sickly, depressed waitress (Keira Knightley) who declares that he'll die on New Year's Eve, 1993. It's Christmas, 1992.

Donnie Darko meets Three Kings--now that's a movie! Sadly, it's not this movie. The initial mix of political allegory and temporal dislocation in Massy Tadjedin's script gives way to a beat-the-clock whodunit paired with a star-crossed romance between the tripping inmate and his visionary waitress, and it's directed as if the filmmakers thought they could rip apart the space-time continuum by cutting fast enough. The inventive cinematographer, Peter Deming, has worked with both David Lynch and Sam Raimi, and at its overwrought acid-flashback extreme, The Jacket suggests an attempted fusion of those styles--a quick shuffle of shock cuts, bilious institutional visuals, eye close-ups, mouth close-ups, through-the-retina zooms, doctored film stocks, and near-subliminal hallucinations. However, as with Martin Amis's gimmicky novel Time's Arrow--which sends human events reeling backward toward the Holocaust--the real-life horrors get reduced to an occasion for stylistic fireworks.

Even though the directorial credit goes to John Maybury, who conducted the visually striking Francis Bacon study Love Is the Devil, it's just as likely that a time warp delivered the Ken Russell of 1980's Altered States--along with his bag of tricks for camouflaging turgid material. On that score, the movie's biggest asset is Brody, whose gaunt face and looming eyes have a silent-film idol's come-hither magnetism. Maybury goes in for overscaled performances, sometimes with disastrous results: Knightley conveys inner torment by smoking really hard. But Brody makes Starks's wide-eyed fear clammily palpable and compelling. And he's matched by a gallery of edgy supporting players, including Jennifer Jason Leigh as a guilt-ridden doctor and Daniel Craig as a twitchy fellow inmate.

Flawed as it is, The Jacket remains the rare contemporary shocker to address the world's current unease, however indirectly. Which has always been the strength of the horror genre: its willingness to run screaming where angels fear to tiptoe. So if nothing else, enjoy a movie that says the world would be a different place if we could go back in time and put a stop to actions that will bear deadly fruit years down the line. Now ask yourself why it's set in Iraq 1991.

 
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