Be not far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is none to help.
Many bulls encompass me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
A movie that begins with “I was 27 the first time I died” is bound to grab your attention. Keeping it, after we watch the Iraqi boy suddenly shoot the American soldier, might well be a different matter. The quick, jump cut editing, as well as the jumps back and forth in time—even a few years into the future—is confusing. This will probably be the most unsettling film you will see this year, the viewer seldom being certain of what is going on, or how the scenes fit together. Judging by the wide range of reaction from critics—some rating it “A,” and others “D” and “F”—I am not the only one confused. Yet I want to see the film again.
Adrien Brody, Oscar winner for The Pianist, is the once-dead soldier Jack Starks. Released from the service, he is hitchhiking his way back to his wintry New Hampshire when he encounters a stalled SUV. A little girl is standing by while her mother sits on a snow bank suffering the aftermath of too much alcohol or drugs. While he fixes the motor, the little girl spies his dog tags and asks if she can have them. Jack consents, but when the mother regains her senses, she screams at him to leave, mistaking him for a child molester. Later, a young man offers him a ride, one that ends in disaster when a policeman stops then and the driver shoots the lawman and leaves Jack unconscious by the body and the cast-off gun. Unable to remember much of his past, Jack is convicted of the murder and committed to a hospital for the criminally insane, where he falls into the hands of Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson) and his associate Dr. Lorenson (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Although Dr. Lorenson has ethical qualms, Dr. Becker seems to be of the stripe that would have been at home with Dr. Mengeles in a Nazi concentrating camp. He subjects Jack to an experimental regimen that includes shock treatment, drugs, and hours stuffed into the straight jacket of the film’s title and stored away in a drawer of the morgue. Somehow all this is supposed to help restore the patient to health!
Director John Maybury and screenwriter Massy Tadjedin lead their cast through a dark labyrinth of the soul to produce, as I wrote before, a very unsettling film experience. You will be thinking about this film long after you have emerged from the theater. Like most film characters, Jack does not seem to be a praying man, but I think that were he aware of Psalm 22, he would appreciate the psalmist’s sentiments.
However, those who like their films to end with everything neatly tied together will be happier going to Racing Stripes instead.