Cinema Signal:

The Criminally Insane
First Sentence: "In 1972 there were fifteen thousand adults living in correctional or mental health facilities in the United States who were characterized as criminally insane."

. "The Jacket"

As a man is immobilized by a straight jacket in a "treatment" for the criminally insane, you will be put into the grip of this first-rate futuristic psychodrama thriller directed by John Maybury. It is a model of superbly crafted screenwriting as well as casting.

You may not agree about the "criminally insane" part. Jack Starks' (Adrien Brody) is, rather, a victim of very unlucky circumstances, not the least of which is being framed for the callous murder of a state trooper while suffering from amnesia brought on by a gunshot wound during the Gulf War of 1991. He can't argue for his innocence because he can't remember what happened. Is this guy's life a case of bad luck, or what?

But, it's not all so hopeless. Just before getting picked up by the real murderer while walking along a Vermont highway, he stops to help Jean Pride (Kelly Lynch) a drunken-sick woman barfing on the side of the road, and her shy young daughter, Jackie (Laura Marano). He fixes their broken down car and asks nothing in return. In that moment, he bonds with the girl and, at her request, gives her his military dog tags as a remembrance.

The unselfish act pays off later, when, under the horrific care of Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), a medical experimenter along the lines of Nazi Joseph Mengele, he's injected with powerful psychotropic drugs, strapped into a straight jacket, and inserted into a morgue drawer for extended durations. His mind goes, and we enter his image warps with him. Snippets of memories return, but in incoherent blurs. But what does cohere is his projection into the future where he meets up with Jackie again, as a 20-year old beauty (Keira Knightly). He's jumped time by fifteen years, to 2007.

Now, here's the unbelievable part: can we really accept that someone who looks like Ms. Knightly could possibly be a lonely waitress in a remote town? A little bit of a challenge since she is, arguably, one of the sexiest women on the planet. Putting that aside, Jack breaks through her shield of self protection and distrust and convinces her that he is who he says he is.

This projection into the future reveals his own death, to come in four days, but not the circumstances of it. With each immersion into the vault, Jack's drugged mind manages to revisit the future where he and Jackie pursue the manner and reason behind his death, searching for the possibility of altering destiny. They are trying to save his life and, in the process, regains his memory of the shooting and his frameup, and realizes the deep love that has developed between him and his devoted sidekick.

What comes out of this is a display of talent in Adrien Brody that goes well beyond his award-winning portayal of "The Pianist." In fact, it's not just the casting itself that's so appropriate to these roles but these are characters that bring out the best in everyone here. Brody is magnetic as he draws sympathy for his embattled everyman without once going outside the bounds of naturalistic (if extreme) behavior. As a result, we remain gripped by his pains of false accusation and guinea pig torment.

I would argue, too, that this is Knightley's best role to date, though she had an impressively good time in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" and a physically demanding one in "King Arthur." There's less distance from the real person here than in fanciful roles of period drama and it pays off with directness and a deeper sense of involvement for her and for us.

The story itself, originated by Tom Bleecker and Marc Rocco and rendered into a screenplay by Massy Tadjedin, is an adventure in mixed genres. But mixture doesn't mean mishmosh, by any means. The delights include writing about the supernatural and horrific without breaking its own groundrules with phony surprise appearances and/or powers simply for the convenience of a stuck writer. On each level, the human, the futuristic, the romantic, the legal, the ironic, it remains consistent and compelling.

Steven King and M. Night Shyamalan: take a lesson.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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