The first Gulf War was hell on soldier Jack Starks (Adrien Brody), but life as a discharged veteran wasn't much better. Shot in the head and sent home to nurse his resultant amnesia, Jack had the ill fortune to hitch a ride one day with a shifty motorist who had a peculiar aversion to being pulled over. Whatever happened next and we're as fuzzy on the details as Jack is a cop was found dead at the scene. No one else was around to take the rap, and so Jack was remanded to a mental institution for treatment of his presumed psychopathic tendencies.
What he found there was more punishment than therapy: The cruel Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson) liked to tie Jack into a straitjacket, shoot him up with neuroleptics and stick him in a morgue locker for hours on end. Unconventional methods, to be sure, but a great way to give a patient time to dwell on what he's done. Far too much time, as it turns out.
It's always a good thing when a movie exploits the universal fear of being tortured by Kris Kristofferson. Yet that's not the limit of the head games director John Maybury (Love Is the Devil) has in store in this admirable experiment in psychological science fiction, a slick blending of La Jetée, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and even One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Working from a potentially flat script by Massy Tadjedin (Tom Bleecker and Mark Rocco crafted the story), Maybury applies his interrogative, close-up-laden filming style (established in his video for Sinéad O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U") to keep the movie believably squirmy no matter how far-fetched its particulars become.
Stuck in the morgue and teetering on the verge of true insanity, Jack somehow takes a mental leap 15 years into the future, where he makes a critical rendezvous: A frowzy young waitress (Keira Knightley, not that bad) may hold the key to his entire complex existence. Though their dual inquiry into Jack's feedback loop of a destiny won't win any awards for storytelling innovation, it's related with enough style to keep us reasonably near the edges of our seats and to show how much a dollop or two of finesse would have wallpapered over the cracks in clumsy cop-outs like Identity.
Maybury plays up our inherent suspicion of Jack as an audience escort, causing us to question how much of what we're seeing is real and how much is a construct of the character's much-molested mentality. This is accomplished in large part through supporting performances that simmer at a pitch just below demented. There are reasons aplenty for a fellow inmate named Mackenzie (Daniel Craig) to act eccentrically, but the tenor of distraction extends all the way to the compassionate Dr. Lorenson (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Could the entire cast be dancing to the tune of one mad conductor? Meanwhile, the screenwriting team has assigned Knightley's character the dubious mirror-image appellation of "Jackie," which sure sounds like a case of an embattled psyche reaching for its feminine side.
The techno-inflected soundtrack music and occasional (almost subliminal) visual drop-ins contribute to a cut-up approach that keeps us nicely off balance without obfuscating the story. The pace lags slightly at about the two-thirds mark that Sinéad clip was hardly a sprint, remember? yet it's almost to Maybury's advantage as he imbues Jack's experiences with a sad sense of inevitability. For all intents and purposes, the world of The Jacket is one ruled by the whims of fate; what's going to happen, happens. That there's any wiggle room for human happiness in this full-length fait accompli feels like a little victory and not just of style over substance.