Films that mix up wildly diverse genres – thriller, romance, science fiction – can sometimes be liberating adventures. This is not only because they hop from one narrative possibility to another, but also because one genre can serve to open up the issues that another represses. Frank Capra played with this fire almost sixty years ago when he combined a guardian angel story with a family melodrama in It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
By the same token, films with mixed-up genres can just easily be cannily evasive – running away from thorny questions by immediately taking refuge in some movie-fantasy shelter. John Maybury's The Jacket is a highly intriguing multi-genre movie that constantly dances between opening up and closing down the avenues it creates.
Style-wise, the movie is as busy as a bag of monkeys, and its incessant, often hypnotic play with diverse types of imagery and multiple layers of sound helps keep the audience distracted from paying attention to the deeper inconsistencies.
The story begins boldly amid the atrocities perpetrated by American soldiers during the first Gulf War. Jack (a constantly anguished Adrien Brody) is seriously injured in the line of duty. He is shipped back home for extensive treatment in a sinister clinic (reminiscent of the Gothic establishment in The Snake Pit ) run by Dr Becker (Kris Kristofferson). Long days spent locked up in a morgue-like cabinet (here Maybury enjoys alluding to Carl Dreyer's classic Vampyr ) send Jack off into seriously visionary mental trips.
At some hard-to-define point, The Jacket veers away from its promise of becoming a politically searching conspiracy thriller about mind control, in the vein of either version of The Manchurian Candidate (1962 & 2004). Suddenly, as Jack zips around in time meeting and enlisting the help of Jackie (Keira Knightley), the material switches genre and morphs into a mystical romance in the vein of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) or, more ickily, the collected works of M. Night Shyamalan. The result is captivating, but also slightly dissatisfying.
Maybury has had a fascinating career. Beginning within the experimental, art-school, Super 8 scene led by Derek Jarman in the UK, he moved through music video and projects with titles like Premonition of Absurd Perversion in Sexual Personae to arrive at his debut feature, the uneven Francis Bacon biopic Love is the Devil (1998). With the aid of Steven Soderbergh as producer, Maybury makes the most of his newfound access to Hollywood resources. His work with the actors is particularly impressive.
The Jacket will have most viewers guessing from first to last moment, even if it does not stand up to very much post-viewing scrutiny. But it is a lively indication of what Maybury is capable of, and what he will hopefully go on to make.
© Adrian Martin August 2005