Early on, it seems like John Maybury's primary goal with The Jacket is to make his viewers as crazy as his protagonist. As a recent war vet who was shot in the head in Iraq, Adrien Brody suffers from an erratic memory and an inability to express himself coherently, possibly because he became used to punishing barrages of noise, erratic montages, static, visual distortion, and extreme color filters, and can no longer deal with normal, semi-naturalistic film sequences. When Brody is implicated in a murder that he can't remember, he's committed to an asylum, where a grimly paternalistic doctor (Kris Kristofferson) fills him with experimental drugs and subjects him to crude sensory deprivation by strapping him into a full-body straitjacket and slipping him into a morgue drawer for hours on end. Alone in the dark, Brody hallucinates more almost-unbearable montage segments, then slips into what seem like reclaimed memories, until they begin to include Keira Knightley as the grown-up version of a little girl he encountered not long ago.
What follows is a less effects-ridden blend of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Jacob's Ladder, with a little Altered States thrown in for good measure. Brody is just a puppet to The Jacket's flashy gimmicks, and he makes for a hollow protagonist, as he changes his opinions in defiance of logic and established character in order to meet the story's needs. The relationship he forms with Knightley is as sweet, as central, and as touchingly dysfunctional as Eternal Sunshine's core romance, but neither their showy roles nor the more subdued, internal ones of dueling doctors Kristofferson and Jennifer Jason Leigh come across as important. They're all cogs in a relentless plot machine which leaves little room for personal expression.
Still, the central mystery remains effective and compelling for most of the film, until it becomes clear that it's all image and no intent. Maybury's history in music videos, art installations, and experimental film surfaces constantly as he doles out seemingly endless ear-splitting, eye-numbing hallucinations, or obsesses over repeated images of Brody in the dark, his eyes rolling wetly in panic, with tiny CGI flashbacks dancing across his irises. Maybury relentlessly abuses his viewers' senses, teases them with a fascinating story, and then shoves them abruptly out the door with a prosaic and unsatisfying ending. What did they ever do to him?