When Adrien Brody last graced the big screen, he was co-starring as the village idiot in M. Night Shyamalan’s idiotic The Village, drooling, stammering and flailing around like a trained chimpanzee in a high school production of The Crucible. Coming on the heels of Halle Berry’s embarrassing Catwoman, it was perhaps the second least-flattering performance from an Oscar-winner in recent memory. So it comes as somewhat of a relief that Brody is attempting to make up for last summer’s career misstep with this arty psychological thriller, in which he plays a drooling, stammering mental patient who flails around only every once in a while, when he’s not being forcibly restrained.
The Jacket — for all its ludicrous pretzel logic and shameless attempts at suspense — at least finds Brody in top form, underplaying most of his scenes and reining in his tendency to slip into blubbery, method-acting weirdness. Unfortunately, the problems with the film are out of the hands of its star, who does about as well as any actor could with material this weak. Directed by avant-garde Brit John Maybury, the film opens with a flurry of night-vision war photography, titled “Iraq 1991.” After miraculously surviving a bullet to the head, Pvt. Jack Starks is dumped back into civilian life, wherein he encounters a seriously unstable single mom (Kelly Lynch) and a loose-cannon cop-killer (Brad Renfro) who ends up framing him for his crimes. Shaken by the war and losing his grip on reality, Starks pleads ignorance and is sent to a psychiatric hospital to do time, where the sadistic doctor Becker (Kris Kristofferson) subjects him to what you might call “alternative therapy.”
Before you get the idea that this is more blue-state Hollywood entertainment, similar to last year’s surprisingly decent remake of The Manchurian Candidate, be aware that the politically charged setting and the references to Gulf War Syndrome are just the first of many bait-and-switch techniques put to poor use by screenwriter Massy Tadjedin. No, The Jacket is really about Starks’ attempts to piece together his post-combat history, which comes to him via flashbacks — or are they flash-forwards? — involving the chain-smoking, whiskey-slinging Jackie (an overly mannered Keira Knightley), who just might hold the key to his sanity.
The few people who happened to see Christian Bale’s tour-de-force performance in The Machinist last fall might get a sense of déjà vu with this film: both are grungy, shallow, it’s-all-in-your-head freak-outs that just happen to prominently feature the talented Jennifer Jason Leigh. Bale’s essentially similar film is marginally better, however, thanks to its stunning production design and morbid sense of humor. Maybury might bring a keen eye for psychedelic visuals and a knack for casting, but beyond that, The Jacket fails to distinguish itself from any one of a number of psycho-thrillers that have been floating around Hollywood since Altered States.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].