It's been the better part of a century since Einstein explained that time had to be added to our concept of dimension, and that gravity was nothing more than the warpage of space-time around massive objects. Since then, physicists have seriously considered the possibilities of worm holes, tunnels through space-time that could provide shortcuts connecting widely separated regions of the universe; as well as CTC's, closed time-like curves, regions of space-time so warped that time bends back on itself, conceivably allowing one to travel back in time.
These things were brought to mind as I was watching "The Jacket," the 2005 movie starring Adrien Brody as a man who may be experiencing the consequences of accidental space-time warpage. Or the movie may be entirely symbolic, allegorical, or possibly psychological; take your pick.
Of course, we're all used to movies with flashbacks explaining some of their history, their back story, or movies with machines enabling characters to travel through time. But lately we've seen filmmakers pushing the limits of nonlinear storytelling with movies like "Memento," "Mulholland Drive," "Jacob's Ladder," "The Butterfly Effect," and "The Eye Inside." Yet "The Jacket" is perhaps more like Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" than anything else: The lead character has "become unstuck in time." Unlike Vonnegut's story, however, "The Jacket" involves no satire or comedy; it's meant to elicit straight dramatic thrills.
The question is whether its story would have held up if it weren't for its fancy narrative footwork. In all honesty, I'm not convinced the story holds up even with the intricate, time-shifting storytelling device it uses. What we get is mostly a convoluted tale that tries hard to seem far more important than it is. In fact, it's all rather banal and sentimental.
Most of the story is frantically set up in the first fifteen or twenty minutes and thereafter rather leisurely developed. Let me tell you about those opening minutes. Brody plays Jack Starks, an American soldier in the 1992 Gulf War who is shot in the head. "I was 27 years old the first time I died," Jack tells us.
A year later we see Jack hitchhiking along an isolated country road in Vermont and stopping to help a mother, Jean Price (Kelly Lynch), and her young daughter, Jackie (Laura Marano), with their stalled car. Jack explains to the girl that his dog tags are what identify him in case he can't remember who he is, but at her request he gives them to her. Then the mother and daughter take off without offering him a ride, and he is picked up by another fellow who promptly murders a policeman who pulls them over. Jack is grazed by a bullet, knocking him unconscious, and he's left with the murder weapon. He's tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity, and institutionalized in a mental hospital.
At the hospital, Jack is experimented upon by the head of the asylum, Dr. Thomas Becker (Kris Kristofferson), who straps him into a filthy, urine-soaked straightjacket, pumps him full of drugs, and locks him in a mortuary drawer. It's in these conditions that Jack begins to travel forward in time and back again. In 2007 he foresees his own death in 1993, meets and falls in love with the girl Jackie now grown up (Keira Knightley), and tries to find out who he really is and how he dies the second time.
Whew! That's a lot to happen in a few minutes, and it's quite an unlikely and complicated way to set up what turns out to be a fairly simple story. But it does suggest the movie's fundamental questions: Did Jack die in the Gulf War, and is everything in the movie happening in the split second before he succumbs? Is Jack hallucinating from Becker's treatment with drugs and confinement? Do the dead dream? Or is Jack actually moving through time?
Along the way, other problems have to be addressed. Like, how does Jack travel forward in time without physically changing or growing older? And if all this medical experimenting is really happening, why does no one in the mental hospital report Dr. Becker for his illegal practices? And what are the odds of meeting and recognizing the little girl, Jackie, after fifteen years? And what's with the Rudy Mackenzie character (Daniel Craig) as a fellow inmate? Why is he even in the picture?
Brody plays Jack with essentially one expression throughout the movie. The sensitivity Brody showed in his Oscar-winning "Pianist" performance only faintly glimmers here, the actor relying instead on a series of often vacant, bewildered stares. He seldom seems to get mad or panic or show much emotion of any kind, no matter how desperate his situation. Knightley, on the other hand, is good when she's playing the hard-drinking, chain-smoking waitress she starts out as, but she seems more than a little bland after cleaning up her act. Worse, there isn't a spark of chemistry between the two characters except when he's trying to convince her he's from the past and she despises him for it. Then they suddenly and inexplicably fall in love, and we wonder, huh? Where did that come from, except as an only-in-the-movies moment.
Kristofferson is cold and cruel and not much else; it's impossible to tell what's going through his mind. Is he genuinely trying to cure his patients, or is he as looney as the inmates at his hospital? "You can't break something that's already broken," he says of the patients undergoing his radical treatment.
The best performance in the film is undoubtedly from Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr. Beth Lorenson, one of Becker's colleagues and a person sympathetic of Jack. She is also the only character in the story to register or convey any honest human feelings. Ms. Leigh must be commended for trying to imbue her character with some sense of reality, while being surrounded by an absurd and perplexing plot.
Probably the biggest drawback of the movie, though, is the same one encountered in any time-traveling adventure. It's known in physics as the time-travel paradox, wherein a nonsensical situation arises that appears to allow the impossible to occur. According to Marcus Chown in "The Universe Next Door" (Oxford University Press, 2001), the most common conundrum is called "the 'grandfather paradox,' in which someone goes back in time and shoots his or her grandfather. How, then, could the shooter have been born to go back in time and commit the act?" How, indeed. But it never seems to stop filmmakers from exploiting the idea. I've always liked Stephen Hawking's objection to time travel. If it could occur, he has asked, why haven't we heard from anyone coming back from the future to tell us about it?
Anyway, as I said in the beginning, the film may not be so much about literal time travel as it is about the importance of living, and living every moment to its fullest. Taken as a fable, the story is sweet and affecting, if awfully lightweight. Taken as science fiction, it never makes much sense or makes you care much about it.
The picture is presented in an anamorphic widescreen that comes very close to its 2.35:1 theatrical-release dimensions, and in a high bit-rate transfer that probably is as good as the original print. That said, the image quality is still only average. The colors are meant to be stark, cold, and metallic, with lots of blacks, blues, whites, and shades of gray providing a hard, glassy look. Object delineation is very good, but there is a touch of murkiness to many of the darker scenes, and there are many such scenes.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound acquits itself well, providing an impressive sonic impact, wide channel separation in all five speakers, and especially deep bass from the subwoofer. The battle sequence during the opening titles recalls the sounds of "Saving Private Ryan," but with the added irony of a piano playing softly in the background. This is first-class, modern audio reproduction, adding a lot to the atmosphere of the story.
There are two good featurettes accompanying the film. The first is called "The Jacket: Project History and Deleted Scenes," twenty-eight minutes long, in which the director tells us how he became involved with the project, why he liked it, and why he deleted some of the scenes he did. One alternative lovemaking scene was apparently removed, for example, because American audiences objected to it, something the English director calls "Puritanical," and so it was toned down. The featurette also includes a series of alternate endings to the nostalgically emotional one finally used. The other item is "The Look of The Jacket," a nine-minute special-effects feature on how and why the filmmakers created the bizarre effects they did.
The extras conclude with twenty-five scene selections, but no chapter insert; a not-so-widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Adrien Brody looks painfully sincere throughout the film, as does Keira Knightly. Kris Kristofferson looks flinty-eyed and cold as always. Only Jennifer Jason Leigh comes off as a genuine human being. The lack of intensity from most of the players is rather a shame because the film's first half shows promise before disintegrating into a standard time-travel motif. It's certainly an earnest, well-intended film, with few cheap shots; yet it never develops beyond its basic premise. "The Jacket" offers no surprises and no great insights, which, given its Oscar-caliber star, may be the biggest surprise of all.