Waste of Time

Salt Lake City Weekly | February 23, 2005
If I could travel back in time, here’s what I’d say to The Jacket’s director John Maybury and screenwriter Massy Tajedin: There are two ways to make a time-travel thriller that isn’t a complete waste of time. If you want to aim high, you can dig into the causality complexities and philosophical conundrums inspired by temporal tourism--the kind of approach successfully taken by 12 Monkeys and Primer. If you want to aim low, you embrace the absurdity of the concept either by making it pure popcorn (Back to the Future, The Terminator) or smothering it with cheese (The Butterfly Effect--stop laughing). But for heaven’s sake, don’t get all serious about it unless you know what you’re doing.

Time travel is not an option, however--otherwise, I might have spared myself the 102 minutes spent on The Jacket. I can only move forward on the chronological spectrum, warning others that this movie takes itself way too seriously for something that really should be dripping with frommage.

The Jacket opens in 1991 Iraq on the battlefields of the first Gulf War. This is the story’s first obvious blunder; you don’t play the Iraq War card unless you have something worthwhile to say about it. As it turns out, the gunshot wound that temporarily sends Sgt. Jack Sparks (Adrien Brody) to the hereafter could have happened in a convenience store. The wartime context simply provides a failed attempt at creating added emotional heft by proximity.

Sparks does survive his temporarily fatal injury, but he’s left with a retrograde amnesia that--unfortunately, yet conveniently--only becomes a problem when he hitches a ride with a stranger (Brad Renfro) who kills a cop during a traffic stop. Arrested for the crime after the shooter flees, Sparks finds himself committed to the kind of mental institution that exists only in movies about mental institutions. There he is subjected to a cruel “therapy” involving restraint in a straightjacket, injections of anti-psychotic drugs and confinement in a morgue locker by Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), thereby allowing Nurse Ratched to step down from atop the list of cinema history’s all-time blights on the good name of mental health practitioners.

It is during these periods of drug-addled, claustrophobic panic that Sparks discovers an ability to transport himself into the future. In 2007 he encounters truck stop waitress Jackie, played by Keira Knightley as though she were imitating Helena Bonham Carter’s gin-and-smokes-soaked American accent from Fight Club; if you can listen to her speak without snickering, you’re a better person than me. Jackie agrees to help Sparks--including having sex with him, because Keira Knightley naked makes for a good marketing hook. Can Sparks change the past once he discovers that his death is imminent in his “present”?

At no point does director Maybury--whose only previous feature was the 1998 Francis Bacon bio-pic Love is the Devil--seem clued in to the utter preposterousness of everything in his narrative. Subliminal edits and disorienting backtracking feel like nothing more than a filmmaker’s affectation, an attempt to impose a veneer of “art” over something that doesn’t deserve it. No one even has the good sense to draw attention to the fact that the two lead characters are named Jack and Jackie. What’s *that* about?

But a bigger problem with The Jacket is that despite its efforts to project a sense of consequence, it’s inexcusably lazy in dealing with the cause-and-effect issues of Sparks’ time travel. While at first it plays with the circular notion that future events have already been changed by things that Sparks will do when he returns to the past--e.g. providing a miracle diagnosis for a “good” psychiatrist played by Jennifer Jason Leigh--it takes a left turn against pre-determination when it suits plot purposes. And it may be the biggest problem of all that Sparks--played by Brody with as much sincerity and intensity as he can muster--appears too stupid to realize that once he gets a key piece of information from Jackie, he might actually be able to get his own conviction overturned.

And that, ultimately, may be the best way to summarize The Jacket: It’s one of those dumb movies operating under the delusion that it’s actually a smart movie, or perhaps worse, an *important* movie. When The Butterfly Effect provides a better road map for how to approach your premise--cheese and all--you know you’re in trouble.

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