Horror films these days are so single-minded about going for the throat, the gut, and other, lower body parts that it’s easy to be grateful when one of them tries to engage the brain. The Jacket feels like it must be the 12th jolt-laden morbid thriller to open this year, yet it’s the first that doesn’t insult your intelligence.
Adrien Brody, looking as elegantly spooked and spindly as a Tim Burton marionette, occupies the jittery, paranoid center of The Jacket. He plays Jack Starks, an amnesiac veteran of the 1991 Gulf War who, in scenes that zip by so fast we aren’t sure if they’re real, is convicted of murdering a police officer. He is sent to a psychiatric hospital, where, under the supervision of the sinister Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson, shot in close-ups that make his wrinkles look as if they’re hatching schemes), he gets pumped full of drugs and put through a kind of altered-state nightmare ”therapy.” Placed in a straitjacket, shoved into the claustrophobic blackness of a morgue drawer, Starks endures a chain of psychedelic flash-cut visions that propel him 15 years into the future.
There, he meets Jackie (Keira Knightley), a troubled coffee-shop waitress whom he’d encountered back when she was a little girl traveling the highway with her mother. The Jacket glides back and forth between Starks’ journeys in time, in which he tries to find out what happened to him, and the scenes at the mental ward, which are like Cuckoo’s Nest recast by David Fincher, all shot in that brackish gray-green school of cinematography that might be dubbed Formaldehyde Fluorescence.
Director John Maybury has a feel for shock rhythms, and he’s skillful at keeping you guessing, but after a while you want your questions to cohere into compelling answers, and in The Jacket they don’t, quite. The film is a sea of red herrings. Knightley, wearing black nail polish (that’s all you need to know about her character), does sexy dissolution just fine, but it’s Brody who lends the movie more fearful clenched urgency than it deserves.