Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of time-travel movies—one in which the protagonist’s attempts to meddle with chronological cause and effect result in a traumatic collapse of the space-time continuum, the other in which a malleable universe grants infinite license to the laissez-faire time traveler, who doesn’t stop tampering until everything is exactly as he or she pleases. While last year’s Primer is a sterling example of the cautionary mode, The Jacket subscribes to the latter ideology with dubious vigor: Casting aside metaphysical dilemmas and political subtexts, the film devotes itself solely to securing an acceptable outcome for its war-traumatized hero.
The Jacket steals its notion of a man haunted by his own death from any number of La Jetée variants, but mostly, given the suggestion of post-combat syndrome, from Jacob’s Ladder. After suffering a near-fatal gunshot to the head from an Iraqi child during the first Gulf war, Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) is shipped home to snowy Vermont. One disorienting day, he stops to help a drunk woman (Kelly Lynch) and her daughter, winds up in a shoot-out, and is arrested for killing a cop. Sentenced to a mental institution, Starks, suffering from partial amnesia, is subjected to a highly experimental treatment by the baleful Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson)—electroshocked, straitjacketed, and shoved into a mortuary drawer that has the properties of a time machine.
Commuting between 1992 and 2007, where Starks soon begins romancing the now grown little girl (Keira Knightley), The Jacket is a disappointing nosedive into the mainstream for John Maybury, the Derek Jarman acolyte who transitioned successfully from experimental work to features with 1998’s hallucinatory Francis Bacon biopic Love Is the Devil. Maybury gives the movie’s night-sweat visions a strobing, vaguely avant-garde flourish, but proves only that he’s a cut above the average David Fincher wannabe. The hero’s condition, which goes unconnected to the amnesia of war, instead becomes an allegory for a filmmaker forgetting his roots.