No Jacket Required

A tense thriller about memory? Forget about it.

There are several kinds of Oscar nominees/actors. The shoo-in: a Tom Hanks whose sensibilities generally lean toward the types of projects that Oscar is probably going to ogle anyway. The fluke: A Halle Berry somehow catapulted to Academy Award status once, but otherwise generally unable to rise above the dreck in which they usually star. And then there's the ever-rare artist like Johnny Depp who actually sometimes manages to remediate the material he's handed.

So which is Adrien Brody? The young actor took home the golden statuette in 2002 for Roman Polanski's quintessential Oscar-bait epic, The Pianist. Gaunt and grieving, Brody's Wladyslaw Szpilman is tangible humanity wandering in the vast open spaces of Polanski's film. Brody's choices are daring, his personality quirky. And effervescently annoying Dr. Pepper commercials notwithstanding, Brody's past projects ' Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line, Spike Lee's Summer of Sam ' promise much. But just how good is he really? The Jacket is the latest chance to answer that question.

In a confusing desert night of madness and mayhem, Gulf War soldier Jack Starks (Brody) shows a moment of kindness to an Iraqi child and ends up with a bullet in the brain for his Samaritan streak. At first, army doctors count Starks among the dead, but at the last minute, an observant nurse sees him blink. He's alive, it turns out, but his memory is shot. He sits dully in a chair, staring past doctors and officers talking at him. He doesn't realize how lucky he is, they say. There will be help for him, they promise.

What a stunning beginning, the perfect perch for an excellent exploration of the psychological aftermath of war. Starks is a walking metaphor, physically surviving the war he is sent to fight, but coming back to society minus the ability to remember it. We've seen the previews, so we know Starks is going to get himself into some serious psychiatric trouble involving a straitjacket and a morgue drawer any minute now. But what if there's an intelligent design at work here, a subtle political point to be made about the price of war?

Don't get too attached to such a deep thought because, just like that, it's gone. Screenwriter Massy Tadjedin instead opts for a mishmash of ideas about fate and time, all much more interestingly examined in the screenplays of far better movies such as the Oscar-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys and, yes, even Christopher Reeve's 1980 shameless tearjerker Somewhere in Time.

Hitchhiking on the back roads of Vermont after his return stateside, Starks helps a strung-out mom (Kelly Lynch) and her wide-eyed daughter, Jackie. Moments later, he's offered a ride to the Canadian border by a genial-enough stranger, who ends up killing a cop and leaving Starks unconscious by the roadside. In the absence of any proof that anyone else was there ' and thanks to Starks' faulty memory ' the veteran is sentenced to the mental institution Alpine Grove.

A renegade doctor (Kris Kristofferson) selects him for special treatment, which involves drugs, a straitjacket and long hours locked in a morgue drawer. The purported mental benefits are never fully explained (go figure), but that matters naught, for in the drawer, Starks begins to see the future. He meets Jackie all grown up in the year 2007 and discovers that Jack Starks is already dead. He spends the rest of the film shuttling back and forth, trying to figure out how he dies in 1992 while falling in love with Jackie (Keira Knightley) in 2007. At this point, our movie about memory has forgotten where it was going.

Director John Maybury does a decent enough job creating the claustrophobia of a life gone horribly wrong; Alpine Grove is a carnival caricature of dark, unsanitary corners, its staff nasty and neglectful. And Brody fights to keep us rapt, rendering Starks' passivity and vulnerability a physical reality.

There's an elusive grace to Brody's onscreen persona, a smartness and sensitivity just under the surface that's mesmerizing. For an innocent thrown into hell, Starks initially seems exceptionally low-key; Brody bravely never overemotes, patiently waiting for us to tune into his distinct emotional frequency. When finally he howls "We will haunt you" at one of his caretakers, it's hard not to feel it in your bones. At all the right moments, Brody buzzes like a tuning fork with panic, anger and despair, his understated, self-effacing style only magnifying each emotional truth.

But sadly, not even Brody's bottomless eyes or the intelligent vibrations he brings to every scene can make The Jacket fit. What's it all about? Perhaps it's just one long yawp in the face of inevitable fate, a paean to the idea that a sense of control is one of life's grandest delusions. But the film mistakes complexity for cleverness, spinning a web that straitjackets Brody's talents. He can't help this material because he's so much better than it is. His performances are always good; now he just needs the choices to match.