Adrien Brody’s The Jacket Asks: Are We Really Sane or Insane?

I must acknowledge from the outset that the mostly derisive reviews of John Maybury’s The Jacket placed it very low on my reviewing priority list-until my astute Freudian-auteurist friend, Stephen Gottlieb, told me to reconsider the film. He warned me that its narrative construction didn’t really work for audiences, and it doesn’t, but he also noted there was something searchingly profound in the psychological subtexts of the film and Mr. Maybury’s direction. And there is.

I’m not saying that most of my colleagues are wrong about The Jacket and that I am right. Rather, I had the advantage of anticipating the film’s problems of communication as I kept looking for its compensating virtues, which I found more painlessly than I had expected.

The screenplay by Massy Tadjedin, from a story by Tom Bleecker and Marc Rocco, has many felicities of invention, but its biggest problem with audiences is that while the story plays with unexplained gaps in the sequencing of events and the development of relationships, the film doesn’t trumpet itself as an excursion in time travel, like Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985), and Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995).

Instead, its opening scenes in Iraq during the first Gulf War are devoid of any futuristic or supernatural gadgetry or gimmickry, and thus do not prepare us for the last scene of the film, in which the protagonist’s very vividly shown death in all its blood-soaked finality is superseded by a transcendent fantasy of rebirth that prolongs another life besides his own. And this is where Mr. Maybury’s direction succeeds in making the film focus on the human mind, not on the hocus-pocus of time travel.

Still, in these troubled times, it’s not just one eccentric mind that is being traversed here, but all our minds, and again I must acknowledge Mr. Gottlieb’s insight into the question being asked by the film: Are we all sane or insane? The answer is: We don’t know-but probably varying degrees of both.

Another problem for audiences is that Adrien Brody’s Jack is loaded down with so much physical and mental anguish that at times he makes Job look like a pleasure-laden sybarite. We first see Jack shot in the head by a little Iraqi boy he has smilingly befriended. Pronounced dead by the medics, he suddenly opens his eyes for what later amounts to his first resurrection. Then the action shifts, without explanation, to a snow-covered Vermont road where hitchhiking Jack encounters a mother and a child stranded with their stalled automobile.

The mother, we later learn, is named Jean Price (Kelly Lynch), and her little girl is Jackie (Laura Marano). Jackie will reappear later in Jack’s time-tangled existence as a teenager (Caroline Marcelle) and finally as an adult (Keira Knightley), who, by puzzlingly disconnected stages, eventually becomes Jack’s lover. The only constant in these disjointed time-switches is Mr. Brody’s low-key and often charming uncertainty about who the character he plays happens to be and where, if anyplace, he is going.

So many bad things happen to Jack without any balancing retribution or payback on his part that an audience accustomed to heroes who come out on top will feel frustrated. For example, while Jean is throwing up on the side of the road, Jack calmly repairs the transmission and asks little Jackie to start the motor, which she does with gleeful success. His reward? The mother recovers from her hangover long enough to accuse him angrily of molesting her daughter and then drives off without a word of thanks.

Later, while he’s hitchhiking on the same road, Jack is picked up by a stranger (Brad Renfro) who turns out to be a homicidal maniac. When a state trooper stops his car, the stranger shoots him as Jack looks on in horror. As bad luck would have it, the dying trooper gets off a shot that hits Jack, rendering him unconscious from still another head wound. The stranger throws his gun near Jack’s inert form and flees on foot.

The action then shifts to a courtroom, where Jack is being tried for murdering the state trooper, though he is unable to remember what happened. The jury finds him not guilty by reason of insanity, and he is sent to an institution for the criminally insane, where his troubles seem to be just beginning. For one thing, he is never cleared of the murder.

The last straw for most of the reviewers was the insane asylum itself, with its apparently sadistic attendants and supervisor, Dr. Thomas Becker (Kris Kristofferson), whose prescribed treatment for his patients is a strapped-down stay in total darkness in a morgue-like filing cabinet, where Jack’s eyes gleam in close-up with fear and confusion, but also where the revealingly violent flashbacks (with the emphasis on flash) explode in his brain.

There is no climactic lobotomy like the one that finally pacified Jack Nicholson in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), an institutional attack on the individual that served as a wake-up call for the liberal conscience. Even so, it’s a long way from the blank check given to benignly invasive psychiatry in Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948).

Today, we seem closer to the blanket indictment of mental institutions in Frederick Wiseman’s muckraking Titicut Follies (1967), which encouraged us to believe that the inmates were not crazy at all, but merely victims of neglect, mistreatment and excessive “medication”-mostly with Thorazine, which only made them worse. Mr. Wiseman’s error was in lending too much credence to the words and point of view of the inmates.

The Jacket looks very different (at least to me) if one entertains the possibility that things are not what they seem between Jack and Dr. Becker. And what if the womb-like enclosure in which he’s confined helps to illuminate the nature of his own delusions? Yes, the sheer darkness is scary, but there are, curiously, no adverse after-effects on his psyche, only a renewed lucidity and sense of purpose.

A crucial character in the story is the singularly sympathetic Dr. Lorenson (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who takes a special interest in Jack’s case. When Jack learns from another source that she is privately treating a completely catatonic young boy who has lost the ability to communicate with the outside world, Jack suggests with a newfound tone of authority that she administer the medically unfashionable electroshock treatment on the boy, which she does reluctantly. Nine times out of 10 in today’s technologically pessimistic movies, the shock treatment would turn out disastrously, but here it works-perhaps miraculously, perhaps sentimentally (as one critic has suggested), but in terms of the film itself, it casts a different light on the clinical experiences of the protagonist.

There is in Mr. Brody’s performance an engagingly stoical acceptance of his character’s fate, a remarkable resilience that is something beyond the saintly-more like the universal capacity of damaged human psyches to carry on until a livable balance is achieved between the rational and irrational. In this context, Jack is the ultimate survivor.

My own epiphany on the subject came to me in 1984, when a mysterious viral illness and the drugs used to contain it left me in a prolonged hallucinatory state that I can recall to this day. For a time, I really was crazed to the point that, if I’d had a gun, I would have been capable of shooting any perceived enemy-and the world then was full of them. Afterward, I discarded the liberal notion in Titicut Follies that an unjust, uncaring society is responsible for all mental illness. It is a lifelong struggle for all of us to keep the demons at bay. The Jacket thus serves as a parable to help explain the outbursts of psychotic behavior that so mesmerize the perpetually mystified media.

One of the best and most revelatory scenes in the film is the one in which Jack walks away from the asylum and Dr. Lorenson follows him, attempting to persuade him to return. After briefly hesitating, Jack finally follows her back in order, as he says, to get back into the box so that he can find out who he really is, once and for all. And he does.

The acting is uniformly excellent, with Mr. Brody, Ms. Knightley, Mr. Kristofferson, Ms. Leigh and Ms. Lynch leading the way and Daniel Craig adding a brilliantly humorous note as Rudy MacKenzie, an inmate who tells himself and everyone who’ll listen that he’s been incarcerated after making 20 attempts on his wife’s life. When the truth is revealed-that he’s been confined because of an attempt he made on his own life, after his wife ran off with another man-he refuses to accept it. After all, his self-esteem takes precedence over the truth.

Tough-Guy Bruce

Florent Emilio Siri’s Hostage, from a screenplay by Doug Richardson, based on the book by Robert Crais, has but one virtue as an action thriller: There is not a single screechy car chase. Besides that, this visually stylish but highly improbable Bruce Willis vehicle opens chaotically with Mr. Willis as the renowned but overconfident Los Angeles Police Department hostage negotiator, Jeff Talley, misreading the lethal intensity of a distraught husband’s rage and despair, which results in the murders of his wife and child, and the husband’s own suicide.

So shaken is Talley by his negotiating misstep that he resigns from the force and takes a “quieter” job as the sheriff of a low-crime California mountain town. I put “quieter” in quotes because we all know what happens when a movie action hero tries to get some peace and quiet. In a very short, hastily played scene, we’re shown Talley’s own domestic problems with his wife, Jane (Serena Scott Thomas), and his daughter Amanda (played by Mr. Willis’ own offscreen daughter, Rumer Willis).

Obviously, Talley’s family malaise is not what the picture is all about. And sure enough, having just settled into the “quiet” small-town routine, along come three teenage hoodlums in a pickup truck who unwittingly ignite the crime of the century when they decide to follow a spoiled rich girl and steal her S.U.V after she gives them the finger in response to their crude come-ons. Round and round we go on a winding mountain road with a safe distance between the vehicles until the girl reaches her home, a multimillion-dollar mansion seemingly a million miles from nowhere.

We have already been introduced to its owner, Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak), a suspiciously behaving accountant with big stacks of currency in his safe, a huge collection of DVD’s and cryptic telephone conversations with shadowy figures in sinister silhouette. But the only people who are shown in the house, besides the three teenage felons who are about to invade it, are the accountant, his aforementioned daughter, Jennifer (Michelle Horn), and his amazingly resourceful young son, Tommy (Jimmy Bennett).

As the action developed in the film, one thought kept buzzing in my head: Where are the servants? Who does the cooking and cleaning, inasmuch as there is no wife or mother figure on the premises? Do they order pizza, and how is it delivered? Then again, if one assumes that three teen miscreants are at all street-wise even in this quiet town, they should anticipate that a hilltop mansion would be loaded down with alarms and other security devices. For that matter, once they steal the S.U.V., how are they going to get back down that long winding road without being detected and intercepted?

Sure enough, the police station is alerted to the presence of an unidentified and unoccupied vehicle in the vicinity of the mansion. A lone African-American woman deputy drives up the long mountain road to investigate. (Remember the satirical movie cartoon that used to run in Mad Magazine with the caption “You know who gets killed next?”)

Meanwhile, the thugs have broken into the house and demand at gunpoint that Smith tell them where his money is hidden. Suddenly, the policewoman appears at the front door to ask about the strange vehicle. Smith tries to reassure her without opening the door that there is a plumber on the premises. But she remains suspicious and draws her gun, at which point one of the teens, named Mars Krupcheck (Ben Foster), ends the standoff by coolly shooting and killing her. The other two teens are brothers, Dennis and Kevin Kelly (Jonathan Tucker and Marshall Allman), and they don’t seem to have noticed what a terminal nutcase their buddy Mars has always been.

Soon, the mountain mansion’s surrounded by the sheriff, his small contingent of deputies and the police forces of neighboring cities. At first, Talley is eased out of command and gets into his car to drive back into town, when he feels a gun pressed against his head and is ordered to drive to an isolated location, where a group of masked men display his wife and daughter bound and gagged as hostages. Talley is then instructed to return to the Smith mansion, rescue the hostages and retrieve a secretly encoded DVD of Heaven Can Wait. They fail to specify whether it’s the exquisite 1943 Ernst Lubitsch original or the inferior 1978 Warren Beatty remake.

No matter: Talley is now torn between his personal obligations to his own family and his professional responsibility for the lives of the Smith family. The mysterious force that causes Talley to be impaled on the horns of a dilemma is never identified, but by the time everything has been sorted out (more or less) to action-movie specifications, the mansion is ablaze and the movie’s death toll has reached double digits.

There are whispers that Mr. Willis, almost 50, is too old for action movies like Hostage, but you just have to look at all the great twilight westerns celebrated in the recent Film Forum series to see actors much older than Mr. Willis performing nobly and, yes, actively in one of the most strenuous of action genres.

I have been following Mr. Willis as an actor with respect and admiration ever since his breakthrough days of the 80’s television series, Moonlighting. He has survived such spectacular flops as The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and Hudson Hawk (1991) to lend credence to a wide range of conventional and offbeat entertainments. I can’t say Hostage falls into the latter category, but I still like Mr. Willis.