A Gulf War veteran whose injuries have left him with an uncertain memory walks along a highway then stops to help a mother and daughter whose car has stalled. He gets the car started, but the mother is high and disoriented and screams that he should get away from her daughter. So he keeps walking until he gets picked up by a guy who seems friendly until they get stopped by a policeman. The next thing he knows, Jack (Adrien Brody) is on trial for killing the policeman. Even he is not entirely sure that he didn’t do it.
Jack is found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to a mental hospital. Drugged and subjected to a horrifying test treatment, Jack begins to grope toward a memory of what really happened when the policeman gets shot. And he begins to travel? hallucinate? see a vision? of himself in 2007, befriended by a waitress who has a connection to his past.
Like Jack, who was diagnosed with “possibly acute retrograde psycho-suppression,” we are not sure of what is real and what is imagined, hallucinated, dreamed, or real. Is it psychotropics, stress, madness? Or has Jack found some sort of portal into the future by being drugged, strait-jacketed, and shoved into a drawer designed for housing dead bodies, literally filed away? Is it a coincidence that he is Jack, the waitress is Jackie, and the treatment is named not after the drug or the drawer but the Jacket they use to strap him down? Or that at three crucial moments he stops what he is doing to help a child?
The tests are being conducted by soulless Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), even though past efforts had disastrous results and his junior colleague Dr. Lorenson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) urges him to stop. “He’s not a lab animal. You can’t reprogram these guys.” Becker explains that “you can’t break something that’s already broken.”
Jack comes to want more of the treatment because it is his escape, whether real or imagined. Jackie in 2007 has the key to solve a mystery more pressing than the murder of the policeman. Jack will die in just a few days. Can he prevent it? Can he at least find out what happens? Or what happened?
This is a smart thriller, with above-average heft and imagination in the story, the structure, and especially in the striking visuals. Oscar-winner Brody makes Jack capture our loyalty and makes us believe that he could capture the loyalty of the strong but damaged Jackie. Kiera Knightly delivers not just an American accent, but an impressively specific one, an accent that helps convey the character. It goes a bit off the rails as it pulls everything together at the end, especially with regard to the medical judgment of Dr. Lorenson (Jennifer Jason Leigh), but by then your heart is so much on the side of the characters that it hardly matters.
Parents should know that the movie includes intense, graphic, grisly, and disturbing images, guns and other kinds of violence (characters killed), and abusive medical treatment. There is a sexual situation and some sexual and non-sexual nudity. Characters drink, smoke, abuse drugs, and use some strong language. Some audience members may find the themes of the film upsetting as well.
Families who see this movie should talk about how we can test what we think we know to determine what is real. Have you ever had a strong memory of something that happened to you and then realized it was from a movie or photograph? How do we know which experiments to allow, understanding that that some will fail and leave the subjects worse off than they were?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Jacob’s Ladder, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Frequency.