A great many supernatural things happen in The Jacket—often in searing montages ostensibly designed to fry the audience’s eyes—though they ultimately make little sense and amount to even less. A time-traveling mystery, romance, and thriller, John Maybury’s film concerns Gulf War vet Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) and his waning grip on reality. Almost killed in the line of duty during 1991 combat, Starks returns home to Vermont and, after helping a young girl named Jackie (Laura Marano) and her mother (Kelly Lynch) fix their broken-down car, hitches a ride with a stranger (Brad Renfro), blacks out, and awakens to find himself on trial for the murder of a highway patrolman. Deemed criminally insane, he’s committed to Alpine Groves psychiatric ward, a stereotypically decrepit mental hospital (think a less loony version of Twelve Monkeys’ sanatorium) with walls covered in filth, halls lit by putrid fluorescent light, and zonked-out patients who drool heartily. There, under the wacko supervision of Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), he’s given therapy that involves anti-psychotic drugs, being placed in a straightjacket, and then tossed into a morgue’s locker for hours. Strapped into the titular coat—a disgusting patchwork garment Leatherface would admire—and left to hang out in the dead body drawer, Starks is magically transported to the year 2007, where he once again meets up with Jackie (now a grown goth-beauty played by Keira Knightley), discovers that he died in Alpine Groves shortly after his arrival, and searches for the truth about his impending/past demise.
Massy Tadjedin’s convoluted screenplay operates as a double mystery—how does Starks die, and what’s real and what’s fantasy?—and it says something about Maybury’s generally sharp direction that the film maintains focus despite its wealth of peripheral characters (including Jennifer Jason Leigh’s good doctor and Daniel Craig’s friendly inmate) and its indifference toward explaining how Becker’s treatments might open a portal into the next decade. Starks’s jacket-induced flashbacks, replete with the unsettling image of memories playing out in his reflective white corneas, unfold like annoyingly frenzied slideshows, but Maybury’s use of transitional fades and Brian Eno’s thrumming, buzzing score—coupled with Brody’s concealment of Starks’s madness with sweet tranquility—creates a dream-like mood of unreality. A shot of power lines suggests the interconnectedness of the past, present, and future, yet The Jacket’s fascination with such temporal associations is superficial—unlike even Ashton Kutcher’s incompetent The Butterfly Effect, Maybury’s film spends little thought on the time-space ramifications of its decade-hopping story. The indecisive director allows for a cop-out interpretation whereby everything is merely Starks’s battlefield deathbed dream, while simultaneously (and more intriguingly) implying that Starks’s ordeal is a byproduct of Gulf War syndrome, thereby casting the film as a muddled treatise on the mind-warping effects of battle on soldiers. Such explanations, however, are quickly shoved aside in favor of a preposterously sudden romance between Starks and Jackie that would have us believe that the quickest way into a morose, black-clad, cigarette-sucking siren’s heart is simply by wining and dining her with cheap vodka and homemade sandwiches.