Do you actually have to understand a movie to really understand it? Last year's best movie, Primer, told an impenetrable story about a time machine and the road not taken, but you didn't have to get it to get it. That's just as true of The Jacket, a supernatural thriller that will leave some people trying to figure it out and the rest of us struggling to take it to heart.
For the sake of your own discovery, I'll make a long story short. In 1991, during the first Iraq war, Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) gets shot in the head and dies. A year or so later, back home in Vermont, Jack hitches a ride from a lowlife who kills a cop, and he ends up charged with the crime. But he claims that he can't remember what happened, and the court believes him.
So he's committed to a mental hospital, where a well-meaning doctor (Kris Kristofferson) tries to effect a cure by injecting him with illegal psychotropic drugs and locking him for hours on a slab in a morgue drawer. Then, on New Year's Day 1993, Jack suffers a head trauma and dies again. And then, 14 years later --
You get the point, so I'll stop there. Director John Maybury is experimental and British, so he's new to this sort of commercial-cinema thing. Thankfully, he's not very good at it: The Jacket asks patience and trust of its audience, offering a small reward of something more than cheap thrills and jolts.
What does it mean to help someone? What are the outer limits of our humanity? You can't just help a stranded motorist and her little daughter start their engine when you find them stalled by the side of the road. You have to make sure they get home safely. You can't just feed a homeless man and give him a place to sleep for a night. You have to care about what happens to him next. "How much time do we have?" asks a disembodied voice, just as the movie ends. In the supernatural world of The Jacket, more time than you'd imagine. But how about the rest of us?
Brody, who won an Oscar for The Pianist, is exceptional here; as Jack slips in and out of awareness and control, Brody performs so organically that you hardly notice him. Jennifer Jason Leigh -- an actress I've always been fond of, despite her somewhat laconic nature -- plays a psychiatrist with a quiet passion for doing good, and Keira Knightley is a screwed-up young woman who helps Jack in two of his incarnations.
The Jacket is a parable -- a contemplation -- and so not too far from Maybury's experimental roots. There's a moment in the hospital where Jack's vociferous high-strung quasi-buddy (Daniel Craig) tells him, "Who wouldn't be nervous if they looked at their life? Whose life is that good?" For a while during The Jacket, I worried that Maybury had nothing more than that to say. I'm glad I gave him some time.