“For my research for this film,” says director John Maybury in the short documentary, “The Look of The Jacket,” “I watched a lot of old silent films, especially Eric von Stroheim’s stuff, just ’cause he was doing experimental stuff in the teens and ’20s, that still haven’t been resolved.” While The Jacket wasn’t quite marketed as an experimental film — in fact, it wasn’t much marketed at all, as if the folks at WIP were unsure how to go about it), it might be understood as such. This not so much because of its plot, though subjective time and shifting history, but more because of its visual density. It is a ravishing film, at once precise, evocative, and impressionistic.
Now available on DVD, The Jacket repays reviewing, revealing in most every frame Maybury’s interests in silent film, his own history as a designer with Derek Jarman, and his collaboration with visual effects supervisor Frazer Churchill and “artist in residence” Rhian Nicholas. In this short making-of film, they recall looking at McCabe & Mrs. Miller (as the director has it, “a film set in a snowy landscape but it’s not about snow”) and Stan Brakhage’s Mothlights, in their efforts to find correlatives for the journey undertaken by Jack Starks (Adrien Brody), from his death in the 1991 Gulf War through to his death in a hospital overseen by the extremely creepy Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson).
As Maybury recalls in the DVD’s other extra, the documentary, “The Jacket: Project History and Deleted Scenes,” he was drawn to the project by producer Steven Soderbergh and the script, a long-in-process script reshaped by Maddy Tadjedin. The film begins as Jack dies in Iraq, his voiceover noting, slyly, “I live in the same world as everyone else. I just saw more of it.” This world includes pain, corruption, and good intentions. Smudgy in one of those green night-vision filters favored by Go Army commercials, he occupies a familiar image, which Jack deems “the first time I died.” After you see George H.W. Bush, Norman Schwarzkopf, and U.S. troops holding their guns on prisoners, you see Jack and a young boy, who approaches him as if a friend. Jack smiles, the child pulls out a gun and shoots him in the head.
Jack’s death here is messy and alarming, especially as you see much of it from his perspective: white, doctors leaning in to declare him dead, frantic cuts to characters who might make sense later, that is, when he lives. For this is the uncanny outcome of this crisis: Jack lives. Maybe. He appears on a snowy Vermont road, where he encounters Jean (Kelly Lynch), too drunk to stand, whose car needs starting. And here he meets another child, this one a girl named Jackie (Laura Marano), Jean’s daughter, worried and briefly soothed when Jack gives her dog tags, a token of his existence — and his wartime experience — intersecting with hers.
While it’s surely convenient that he’d give up this emblem of identity to a stranger, it also anchors the time traveling plot in which the specifically named Jack and Jackie soon find themselves enmeshed — as fellow travelers, as related spirits. Jack’s experience fragments so radically and time turns so out of joint that you might think he’s insane, as do his white-coated doctors, including Becker (whom Maybury calls “a misguided liberal from the ’70s”) and Lorenson (Jennifer Jason Leigh, of whose work Maybury says, “I’ve never experienced that intensity”). Or you might think he’s dead and only imagining himself insane, if you’ve seen La Jetée or Jacob’s Ladder. Then again, you might see The Jacket as an approximate inside-out twist of the other war-trauma movie it quotes from, Full Metal Jacket.
As a science fictiony time-travel movie, The Jacket is decidedly unspectacular. Jack’s adventures across dimensions are premised on Becker’s “special” treatment, essentially loading him up with some hallucinatory agent, strapping him into a body-length straitjacket, and locking him inside a morgue drawer for several hours, during which time he panics, weeps, and cries out, then finds himself transported in time, sometimes back to the moment when he was implicated in a murder actually committed by someone else (Brad Renfro) and sometimes forward, to a future where he meets Jackie again, now grown up to be Keira Knightley (whom Maybury says, “almost comes over as sort of a young Jane Fonda or something”). Dark-eyed and dour, she picks him up outside the grimy diner where she works, and takes him home on Christmas eve because, well because he looks so forlorn standing outside in the cold, without a coat (that is, jacket).
Back at her place, Jack tries hard to be polite, makes Jackie a meager dinner, then watches her twitch and complain, chain-smoking, until she drinks herself to sleep. Here the dark and edgy surroundings turn internal, sort of, when Jack starts snooping through this forlorn kid’s stuff and finds his dog tags. Jackie’s explanation is that yes, she met Jack when she was a girl, but he’s been dead for years (“now” being 2007), from a mysterious head injury at the Cuckoo’s Nest-style mental hospital where he’d been locked up.
On hearing this narration of his death, another death or maybe the same one rejiggered, Jack is appropriately stunned and afraid. Jackie throws him out. And as he stands in the cold and dark, whimpering, he’s zapped back to the drawer and that jacket. “I don’t belong here,” he repeats to his oblivious attendants (one being Mackenzie Phillips, which only underlines the absurdity of his situation).
But really, he belongs here as much as anywhere. Being dead, he’s not really comfortable among flesh-and-blood types. While the film sets up something like a conflict between doctors — good Lorenson and bad Becker — their interests in him are profoundly selfish. He’s looking to perfect a “method” of treating irredeemable criminals, she’s into physiological disorders and apparent lost causes, demonstrated in her on-the-sly treatment of a friend’s child. “You have a delusional disorder,” she soothes Jack, “You’re just confused.”
Jack’s unsure of this diagnosis. Advised by Rudy (Daniel Craig), another patient who’s spent time in the jacket, Jack begins to think he’s not the problem. “The less you freak,” says Rudy cryptically, “The less you’ll trip out.” To Jack, who might be an effect of the jacket himself, this makes sense. And so he resolves to settle into his rides in time, to make good use of his trauma. If this noble notion is hardly sensible, it does make for a strange dynamic between Jack, the good soldier, and those authorities who can’t begin to fathom what’s at stake. Jack and Rudy name that stake when they tag-team a performance during group, when they pretend to be nutty enough to see the truth. Asserting that he’s been tapped to be the new head of the “Organization for the Organized,” Rudy earns the skepticism of the doctors. Jack, however, slides right into the fantasy that is real: “The Organization for the Organized,” he repeats. “I saw them in the Gulf. Those little motherfuckers are everywhere.”
Amid Jack’s sense of perpetual assault, the differently despairing Jackie looks sane, seductive, and supportive. That the 20-year-old Jackie is the stretched out, sadder version of the child with the unmanageable mother makes her another victim of trauma, a fellow survivor with whom Jack might connect. Her acceptance of his preposterous story and his intermittent being (he pops up in her car or at work whenever he’s back in the drawer in his other dimension) makes her seem the perfect girlfriend. She doesn’t understand his drama, but she absorbs it.
This drama is indicated by a series of terrifying subjective images: what set designer Alan McDonald calls “grids” throughout the film, disconcerting flashes of light, blood-in-the-eye shots, the deep darkness of the drawer, the rapid rat-a-tat of violent death, again and again. But when he’s told that his sense of loss and fear is a function of his illness, Jack snaps back, “The real events that have happened to me have been fucked up,” he insists. “Not my mind.” It’s an apt description of how war, waged by the Organization for the Organized, works on its warriors, victims and heroes both.