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A region 2 DVD review of THE JACKET by Lord Summerisle
 

John Maybury's first feature film, Love is the Devil (1998), was an arresting portrait of artist Francis Bacon, seen through the eyes of an avant-garde filmmaker dipping his toes into more mainstream waters. It was a very British affair, with more than a hint of influence from Maybury's mentor, Derek Jarman. The Jacket (2005) has several differences apparent from the off. It is Maybury's first American studio picture, with a budget and corporate constraints to match. There is less of a feeling of auteurship in this movie because of this. The writing process was a formal one that Maybury had little involvement in and all indications point ironically to an altogether more straightjacketed production. None of this is to say Maybury has completely shunned his avant-garde roots. There are many devices used within the movie lifted from the experimental fringe of cinema Maybury hails from. Not to mention the plot itself is not a typical Hollywood narrative, and there is a definite indie sensibility behind the studio ramifications.

Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) is shot in the head on the front line of the first Gulf War, yet survives. After a period of recuperation and being decorated as a brave soldier he is discharged and makes his way home. Here he helps a young woman and her daughter to restart their car before hitching a lift from a stranger. The stranger shoots a policeman who stops them and makes a run for it. In the confusion Starks is charged with the murder and presuming his head injury is the cause is omitted to a mental institution. At the hospital Starks is exposed to experimental treatment by Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson) involving being put in a straightjacket, drugged, and shut in a morgue draw for short periods of time. It is here Starks experiences time travel, being propelled fifteen years into the future, and learns of his imminent murder in the present, leading to a race against time to try and stop his fate, with the help of a young woman named Jackie (Keira Knightley).

It is clear from the unconventional editing style apparent in the opening sequence that this will not be your average Hollywood picture. A montage of abstract nature cobbles together the relevant backstory and gives you an indication into the fragmentary nature of Starks' mind. With documentary and news footage intercut with the fictional narrative, the first part of this sequence, given the subject matter, put me in mind of Sam Peckinpah's classic opening montage in Cross of Iron (1976). There is also something a little Kubrick-esque about this first sequence, and indeed the whole film. Maybe it's the themes laid out; war, control, manipulation, the questioning of morality – the two main films I have in mind are Full Metal Jacket (1987) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). But there is also a masterful artistry to it all that also favours a Kubrick comparison. The voiceover kicks in and the scene is set within minutes. The political climate is highlighted, Starks' injury is shown, he is denoted as a good soldier and ethical man, and we are ready to follow this character already. This is what good characterisation should be like, and it's all in the editing; quick, snappy, intelligent, and to the point. I just hope the studio honcho's over seeing this production have taken notice!

Once we enter the perimeter of the institution the pace changes noticeably. Here we move to the quiet, clinical atmosphere present in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). There is a steady menace to the slow moving scene that first greets the audience in this location, mirrored by Brody's drugged and apathetic Starks. His performance stands out like a pop-up book with every movement. I have been a fan of Adrien Brody since I saw him in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam (1998) and every role he embarks on seems to improve my view of him. To find that Starks was originally to be played by Mark Wahlberg shocks me, as I feel it would not only have been a very different film but a lesser one. Brody brings a gravity to the screen that compliments the film's style, as does the tandem performance of Knightley. She exudes a darkly beautiful cynicism, yet a frailty which matches Brody's character. She also accomplishes a convincing American accent. The scenes that feature both lead characters sparkle with screen chemistry.

When Starks first enters the future, and Jackie's life, Maybury handles the scenes with a mix of sentimentality and melodrama which turns to David Lynch style surrealism when Jackie's true identity is discovered. It is at this point the film works best, amalgamating generic form seamlessly, and creating a true feeling of disorientation, identifying the audience with Starks' situation. The performances are the key to this, as there is something lacking in the potency of the script that I attribute to the separation of the mainstream writers from the independent-minded direction of Maybury. This seems the case throughout the movie. There are times where all elements work in harmony together, like the sequence just detailed, although there are moments where it all seems too contrived and predictable, which for a genre-buster is a disappointment. The stylistic elements and more unusual narrative thrust does connote Lynch, as many critics have noted, although the more linear and conventional progression (the romance and eventual resolution of sorts), are safeguards Lynch has never had time for. In his movies there is an irony to resolution, if there is any at all, and romance is dealt with in a much more enigmatic way. The characters, with the exception of the protagonist, are also painted in rather broad brush strokes in The Jacket. Maybe this high concept format, along with a free play with genre, is more comparable to Hitchcock, who has also been cited as an influence by critics, although I'm cautious to ever compare a contemporary production with the specificity of Hitchcock's work.

It is the not the fault of the performances that create problems though, as all are top quality. Kristofferson is excellent as Dr. Becker. While there is a little of the pantomime villain about him, I would say that is more down to the scripting than performance, as he tries to inject a humanity into the character that is sometimes compromised by the constraints of the productions writing. It must be noted, however, Brody eclipses the menace of the Becker character in most scenes with his sheer emersion in the role of Starks. This is most apparent in their meeting in the future where Starks confronts the old and frail Becker. The intensity of the moment is somewhat diminished by the polarity of the two characters. The incredibly forceful and driven, although sick, Starks is contrasted with the impotency of a frail Becker, to show a shift of power. It would have worked better if the aged Kristofferson matched the authority of Brody's performance. As it is, there is a spark missing in the scene that would have given it the boost needed here and in a few of the films weaker sequences.

The understated performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh is a brilliant addition to the cast, although her character suffers from the same slight inflexibility as Becker. Classical narrative influences dictate her Dr. Lorenson character as the 'helper' (along with a nice supporting role by Daniel Craig), flip side of Becker's 'villain'. It is these strongly defined characters that make the film a little too clunky in places. It's disappointing to have these discrepancies when there is such a well-drawn central character.

Stylistically there is a mixture of influences present, some of which are to be expected from an experimental filmmaker of Maybury's calibre; Bunuel, Jarman, Lynch etc. (he also explored silent cinema for the production). There is also the influence of computer-generated imagery, fully available for the first time to Maybury. He embraces this availability and uses CGI effectively and relatively sparingly. There is always a danger of over doing it, which most Hollywood filmmakers are happy to do, so it is good to see British restraint being exercised in this way! Confined to the treatment-induced time travel of Starks, the CGI works in an abstract sense that suits the form and disorientating theme of the movie. There is also great atmospheric lighting shaping the mise-en-scene, and much attention has been paid to the colour palette, ensuring a sleek, uniform look throughout the production and an artistic and disturbing aesthetic.

Its sensitive politically topical themes involving the Gulf War and its allusions to 9/11 together with an off beat concept, strong performances, arty mise-en-scene and intelligent editing style go some way to compensate for The Jacket's shortcomings in writing, although there is nothing that can make me forgive the insubstantial and anti-climactic sell-out of an ending. It tarnishes the entire film to receive such a weak final scene, and to find out on the DVD extras (detailed below) alternative endings were shot, all offering a much more fitting resolution, sours it further. It is this exact intervention by the studio I was fearful of prior to viewing and it is a shame John Maybury did not see fit (or did not have the power) to finish the piece with the same strength it started so hopefully with.

sound and vision

The Jacket is a dark film, and I mean visually dark, with cinematographer Peter Deming at times pushing the light levels almost as low as he did in David Lynch's Lost Highway, presenting similar problems for non-film formats and their more restrictive contrast ratios. The transfer here copes reasonably well, though there are some compression artefacts in the darker scenes and fine detail is sometimes lost. The restricted colour palette is faithfully reproduced, but be warned – to catch all of the action the only real way to watch the film is in a completely darkened room.
The picture is framed at 2.40:1 and enhanced for widescreen TVs.

There is little showing off in the 5.1 soundtrack, but inevitably and approprately the most dynamic use of the full sound stage comes during Starks' flash-forward sequences, when we are put right inside his head and treated to a blast of deliberately disorientating but well layered audio-visual information. Separation here is very good.

extra features

The Jacket: Project History and Deleted Scenes (28:16) is effectively three extra features rolled into one. The Jacket Project History seems to be in place of a commentary track, with interviews with the main actors, the director and writer. It details how Maybury got hold of the script, some writing insight, and how the actors were chosen for their roles. It is a worthy extra on the disc, although it really is no substitute for a good commentary. The incorprated Additional Scenes provide an interesting insight into some sequences that were left out of the final cut. For most of them I was left wondering why they were removed, as I think many of these scenes would have added to the film. The Alternate Endings I found both an interesting and important addition to the DVD as well as a total frustration. Mainly because all the alternative endings are more inspired than the one used in the final cut, and it infuriates me that the ambiguous ending could not have been firmed up with a bleaker perspective, as shown on a couple of these alternative scenes. [I would add that alternative ending #2 would effectively have rendered the film a partial remake of Jacob's Ladder, and I'd lay money on that being the reason for not going with it – Slarek.]

The Look Of The Jacket Featurette (9:03) explores how Maybury envisioned the film and the use of computer generated imagery in the stylistics of the movie. There is information about the colour palette and influences for the avant-garde sections of the film. Of special interest to those interested in production design and special effects.

The Theatrical Trailer (2:21) does an OK if slightly misleading job of selling the film.

summary

A film that is worthy in giving the mainstream something to think about, although falls down on its Hollywood constraints. Yet another film where Brody excels, and the style of the piece is what one should expect from a John Maybury film. The DVD features are hardly excessive and a commentary by the director and perhaps actors and writers would have made a difference. In this time of being spoilt with a dazzling array of features this disc does leave something to be desired, but what is on there contains valuable and interesting information.

The Jacket

USA/Germany 2005
98 mins
director
John Maybury
starring
Adrian Brody
Keira Knightley
Kris Kristofferson
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Daniel Craig

DVD details
region 2
video
2.40:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
English
English for the hard of hearing
extras
Project history, deleted scenes and alternate endings
The Look of The Jacket featurette
Trailer
distributor
Warner Independent
release date
Out now
review posted
26 December 2005

See all of Lord Summerisle's reviews