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March 5, 2005

The Jacket

I'm writing my review of The Jacket (IMDB) with some degree of caution because I don't want to sound like I'm endorsing the film, but because critics have been bashing the film, I feel compelled to emphasize some of the film's merits. Director John Maybury, apparently an associate of Derek Jarman's, has commented in an interview that the film should be read as a romance with a "subtext of being about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay." And while many critics, including the Times' A.O. Scott (see below) felt that the Gulf War subtext disappeared, I found it crucial to the film's overall significance.

The film opens with night-vision shots of a 1991 Gulf War ground battle in which Jack (Adrien Brody) is shot in the head but miraculously survives and returns to the U.S., though he suffers from a form of amnesia that causes him to black out at terribly inopportune moments, sometimes forgetting his own identity. For this reason, he carries his military dog tags with him everywhere he goes (an allusion, I'd imagine to a similar moment in Chris Marker's La jetee when the Parisian woman sees the Time Traveler's dog tags), eventually giving them to a young girl, Jackie, whom he meets while repairing her mother's car. The night vision shots, mixed with shock cuts, that open the film replicate the CNN Gulf War footage and convey the crucial relationship between technologies of war and technologies of perception, a topic disussed by Paul Virilio and many others. More crucially, the film sets up clear link between war trauma and memory loss (and Jack's eventual ability to travel into the future).

Jack's memory loss eventually places him in the inopportune situation where he is wrongfully convicted of murdering a police officer, and he is sentenced to a gothic mental institution in the Colorado mountains. Peter Deming's cinematography in capturing these snow-swept mountains was one of the film's major strengths (although the film's overuse of extreme close-ups of Brody's eyes and Kristofferson's teeth was distracting). One of the doctors in the mental institution, Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), takes an interest in the new patient and begins a series of apparently sadistic experiements on Jack, reasoning that "You can't break something that's already broken." Not exactly the kind of logic I'd want to hear from a psychiatrist, but Bekcer's experiments serve the narrative (and, I'd imagine, are intended to allude to the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, although they also vaguely reminded me of Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor). There's an Expressionist quality to this footage, something that would be readily accepted in a Tim Burton film, but generally (and wrongfully) seems to come under criticism here. Like Roger Ebert, I kept thinking about Adrian Lyne's 1990 film, Jacob's Ladder, as I watched this film, and both movies are interesting in their attempts to associate the traumas of war with time travel.

Dr. Becker's most sadistic experiements include locking his patients in a metal morgue cabinet for hours at a time, which reminded me of both La jetee and Alain Resnais's Je t'aime je t'aime. While locked in this cabinet, Jack begins seeing shock-cut images from the past and future, eventually developing the ability to send himself into the year 2007 (or at least he imagines that he has traveled in time--it's never fully clear that he does), where he meets and adult Jackie (Keira Knightley), who has also endured a difficult life. And, in case you weren't aware of this fact, Jackie wears too much eyeliner and dark lipstick and presses glasses of alcohol tightly onto her lips. Initially frightened by Jack, who mentions their meeting fourteen years earlier, Jackie eventually trusts Jack's time-travel story and helps him learn more about the hosptial where he is incarcerated. I won't go through all of the details here, other than to say that the "detective" section of the film does have many logical implausibilities, especially the revelation of the "blunt head trauma" that eventually kills Jack, which could have been easily prevented. But the film is far less interested in the logic of time travel and far more interested in using time travel to convey its critique of war (it's obviously no accident that Jack is wounded during the first Gulf War by a young Iraqi boy he is trying to help).

Despite these logical implausibilities, I do think there is an interetsing film here, but I'm still sorting through where to go with it. I'll certainly write about The Jacket in my book, but I'm not ready to talk about how. Like Chris Marker's film, The Jacket certainly offers a meditation on war and trauma, and both films clearly reflect on the nature of cinematic perception. If you're looking for a taut psychological thriller, I don't think you'll find it in this particular film. And I'm not sure that the film quite succeeds as an art house genre film, although that's a better description of what the film is doing (or trying to do). It's worth noting that Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, who were both involved in the remake of Tarkovsky's Solaris, received producer credits for this film. While I doubt they were creatively involved in the film, their support of the film seems significant in that the two projects seem remarkably similar as attempts to remake, or reintroduce, art house classics to more commercial audiences. Whether they have succeeded in this experiment is another question altogether.

Because I've written on time-travel films, I've been intrigued by the critics' treatment of genre, especially A.O. Scott's dismissal of the film. Cynthia Fuchs' review does capture the film's rather complicated political take on the effects of war. And I can only imagine that Peter Travers must have slept through most of the film, missing the more-than-transparent references to Chris Marker's La jetee. Both films involve a military-vet prisoner on whom an apparently sadistic doctor conducts psychological experiments through forms of sensory deprivation (and that's just one similarity). But part of what made this film interesting for me was its place in a recent cycle of "time-travel art films" (and I use the term "art" very loosely) that includes Donnie Darko, The Butterfly Effect, and Happy Accidents.

Posted by chuck at March 5, 2005 10:07 AM

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