JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The Jacket’s nuclear family: the mother is passed out drunk, the father is a ghost, and the child is left to fend for herself.

At night Jack is gagged and drugged by orderlies.

The images of Jack being bound and placed into the morgue drawer are highly uncomfortable, and nearly images of rape.

Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson) prepares Jack’s treatment.

“Basic Trust Vs. Basic Mistrust”: therapy as sloganeering.

Jack takes Jackie to the room where he was tortured.

The adult Jackie (Keira Knightley) stops to pick up a drifter on Christmas Eve.

Harsh Times begins with a p.t.s.d. nightmare about combat, filmed in night-vision.

Jim Davis (Christian Bale) has been sleeping in his car in front of his girlfriend’s house in Mexico.

Jim’s Mexican lover Marta (Tammy Trull) is, somewhat problematically, associated with raw primitivism. She is healthier than the U.S. characters because she acts instinctively and thinks in spontaneous poetry, but she is given little autonomy.

Jim’s new Ford is both status symbol and traveling armor on wheels. It is almost a character in the drama.

Jim mock-spars with his best friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez). Harsh Times is a compendium of macho behavior.

A bad influence, Jim offers Mike a bottle of beer on a day when Mike has promised his lover Sylvia (Eva Longoria) that he will stay sober and look for a job.

Jim’s letter of rejection from the LAPD, who found him mentally unstable.

Jim jacks Flaco’s posse in front of a wall with huge gang graffiti and barbed wire.

The polygraph exam: applying for a federal position is equal to being treated, by default, like a criminal.

Waiting in line for a job interview ....

... Jim shoves an Asian man out of his way. For Jim, might makes right, and although he pals around with Hispanics and African Americans, his white skin still seems to represent, for him, a kind of entitlement.

 

2.

The Jacket opens during the “Desert Storm” Gulf War of 1991: only minutes after the ceasefire is called, U.S. soldier Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) is shot in the head by an Iraqi boy to whom he has tried to reach out. Next we see him back in the United States, amnesiac and on the road, where he helps a drunken woman, Jean Price (Kelly Lynch), whose truck has broken down and who is passing out in the snow. He also befriends the woman’s neglected child, Jackie (Laura Marano), and significantly gives her his army dog-tags.

Subsequently, in an abrupt turn of events he is framed for the murder of a State Trooper and receives a life sentence in a hospital for the criminally insane, where he falls into the hands of the sinister Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), whose radical treatments involve outright torture. Jack’s mouth is duct-taped, he is strapped into a straitjacket and injected with drugs, then buried alive inside a morgue drawer. The intense panic and claustrophobia is meant either to hurl Jack back upon himself and get him in touch with his “guilt” — or, quite simply, to kill him. The actual effect of Dr. Becker’s tortures is that Jack is sent time-traveling. He leaps into the future — a desultory post-9/11 United States — where he encounters the grown-up Jackie (Keira Knightley). Not recognizing Jack as the man who helped her when she was a little girl, she picks him up on Christmas Eve and brings him home to her rundown apartment. Jackie has become a depressed, lonely alcoholic; we learn that her mother burned to death years ago by passing out with a lit cigarette. (The fact that she brings home Jack, whom she meets as a drifter thumbing a ride and whom she views as a stranger, is meant to indicate self-destructiveness.) Jack finds his old dog-tags among her keepsakes, but when he tries to convince her of who he is, she becomes angry and refuses to believe him, insisting that Jack Starks, like her mother, is dead.

Battling against these baffling circumstances that seem out to destroy him, Jack nonetheless conceives a plan to help Jackie. Knowing that the morgue drawer is his time machine, he submits to the experiments (though he expects they will kill him at some point) in order to keep visiting her in the future. In an obvious catch-22, Jack’s insistence that he has seen the future makes him seem all the more crazy to the asylum's staff, but he slowly wins the trust of the wary but compassionate Dr. Lorenson (Jennifer Jason Leigh). During one of his “trips” in the drawer Jack finally succeeds in confronting Jackie’s mother Jean and convinces her to stop drinking for her daughter’s sake before it is too late. However, just as he has won his victory, he ironically slips on some ice and dies of a head trauma — a moment which Maybury splices together with the original head-wound from the war. The storyline’s convolutions do not end there, however. Seemingly re-resurrected, Jack goes to the future again and encounters a much happier, more well-adjusted and successful Jackie, whose mother is sober and still alive.

In the drawer, Jack has a series of hallucinations, including his own bronze death mask ... ... and the Iraqi boy who shot him.
Medical staff as pallbearers for a patient who is actually a corpse. Dr. Lorenson (Jennifer Jason Leigh): idealistic but wary.
The asylum is sealed off by a fence whose barbed wire suggests a military prison camp. The gentle, almost loving actions of a sadist: disturbingly, one realizes that there must have been times when even Mengele comforted his subjects.

All through The Jacket, Jack is little more than a puppet at the mercy of various bewildering and fateful powers. Having already died in vain for his country once, he continues to suffer not as a fallen hero but as a scapegoat, the victim of a kind of absurdist bait-and-karmic-switch. The horrific way he is tortured in his own country is meant to create an interesting note of empathy between U.S. citizens and those who have been profiled, sometimes with a rather broad racial brush, as our “enemies.” When asked why he cast Brody, Maybury told an interviewer, “Because he looks like an Arab ... and it sort of had a nice resonance [with] Guantanamo Bay."[10][open notes in new window] Maybury has also described The Jacket as “a romance that has kind of a subtext about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.”[11]

What is most fascinating about the simulacrum-world that Jack's restless soul inhabits is that it doubles for the real one that surrounds us every day. “I don’t know what I believe,” Jackie tells him at one point, doubting his claim that he has actually traveled through time; but her admission of skepticism takes on a larger societal resonance. Living in and with two different realities is, again, the untenable position of a society that has lost trust in what its appointed leaders say. Were the torturers at Abu Ghraib acting on orders, or were they “rogue elements?” And if they were the latter, was their behavior tacitly encouraged or condoned? Is torture necessary for our safety, and if so, can that ever justify its unconstitionality, its betrayal of the Geneva Convention? The pain of such questions seeps under the skin of all conscious Americans and turns us against ourselves and each other.

Indeed, the dead-end lives of The Jacket’s characters suggest traumatized, isolated people lacking the will to do anything but drag themselves through their dreary workdays, numbed by booze, nicotine and pills. The film depicts a rabid middle-class concern for public safety, which prompts the dystopian torture of convicted killers with a kind of “eye-for-an-eye” vengeance reminiscent of the Old Testament at its most bloodthirsty. Many script elements connote a social order that seeks to purge all outward symptoms of violence from its individual members, while condoning them within the state apparatus. Outraged, hysterical “law and order” paranoia is everywhere. Thus, when Jack stops to help fix Jean’s truck, she sees him innocently hugging her daughter and immediately assuming that he is a pedophile, she screams at him, “Hey, get your fucking hands off my daughter!” The result is a society where everyone feels lost and frightened, keeping others at arm’s length. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Jack and Jackie share a depressing Christmas dinner of stale baloney sandwiches. In contrast to a more saccharine mainstream film, which would probably exalt this kind of poverty fare as “the true meaning of Christmas,” this scene plays every bit as dismally and uncomfortably as it sounds, and it ends explosively, with a mistrustful Jackie driving Jack from her apartment, out into the cold.

Jackie does not recognize Jack as the man she met when she was a child. She offers him a place to stay overnight.
Jackie has inherited her mother’s alcoholism, isolation and depression. Starks finds Jackie’s refrigerator is bereft of food ...
... but he sees her freezer is stocked with vodka. They share a poverty repast of stale baloney sandwiches.

The communities of urban L.A. in David Ayer’s Harsh Times are equally atomized and broken down, and if anything, they are even more spiritually voided and afflicted by poverty and violence. A veteran of the current Iraq war, Jim Luther Davis (Christian Bale), spends most of Harsh Times in a desperate search for identity, security, money, a job. He is really looking for some kind of “peace, love and understanding” though he is far too macho, too drug-addled and stress-disordered to acknowledge this. He divides his time between L.A. and the Mexican village where his girlfriend Marta (Tammy Trull) lives; he hopes to marry her one day. When we first see him, he is sleeping in his car outside Marta’s tumbledown shack, apparently too haunted by nightmares of the war to sleep comfortably in her bed. His dream sequence is tinted the swamp-green of army night-vision goggles; it was filmed with “a mini-DV military night-vision scope,”[12] according to director Ayer. Some of the soldiers are camouflaged in tribal-looking animal pelts with skulls for faces, while Jim wears surreal gloves decorated with skeleton hands. The editing here is reminiscent, in a less avant-garde way, of the violent motorcycle-race montage from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964). Like Scorpio in that film, Jim is seemingly both within the thick of the fray and outside of it, instigating and directing it from the sidelines with a serene, self-satisfied smile — an almost subliminal suggestion of his latent psychosis.

Back in L.A., Jim looks up his best friend Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodriguez), who is trying to lead a middle-class life with his girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria). She is a successful prosecuting attorney who constantly pressures the slacker-like Mike to get a nine-to-five job. A textbook definition of “bad influence,” Jim takes Mike out on a binge of drinking, drugging, and petty thievery, during which they obsessively cruise the streets in Jim’s new Ford — all he has to show for his military pay. Throughout Harsh Times this car serves as Jim’s armor on wheels, the hard shell he uses to fend off the world.

Jim is hoping to get hired by the LAPD but gets turned down after failing the psychological tests. (Given the LAPD’s documented propensity for violence, this is one of Ayer’s more mordant jokes.) Instead, Jim is courted by the Federal Department of Homeland Security — it turns out they are looking precisely for killers and sociopathic cowboy types to head up a new anti-drug task force in Colombia. “We’re all a little goofy around here,” Senior Agent Richards (J. K. Simmons) tells him. The Colombian task force is a covert operation that may be on behalf of a private military firm. Although Ayer does not specify this, something sinister and conspiratorial is implied by Jim’s recruitment scene. (Mike seems to recognize that Jim has already been fighting for capitalist ventures in the Middle East when he asks at one point, “Who did you kill? Commies?”)

According to P. W. Singer:

“At least seven U.S.-based military companies are active in the ongoing conflict in Colombia. Many claim that these private corporations, such as DynCorp and EAST Inc., ostensibly hired by the U.S. State Department to help in the antidrug effort, are actually going well beyond such tasks, including engagements in counterinsurgency operations for the government.”[13]

Singer goes on:

“The intent of privatized military assistance [in Colombia] is to bypass Congressional oversight and provide political cover to the White House if something goes wrong. ... Although U.S. military personnel are under strict legal restrictions from engaging in counterinsurgency operations, it is clear that the firms are not bound by the same rules. DynCorp’s operations in Colombia entail more than crop dusting, but also engage in combat with the local FARC rebels.” [14]

Balding, paunchy and leather-jacketed, the task force recruiter (Fred Sheehan) literally emerges from the shadows. He says, “You were getting paid to fuck people up,” as an unromantic synopsis of Jim’s service in the Middle East while we look at a series of photographs of a masked, flak-jacketed Jim standing over bodies in what appears to be an abattoir. It is clear the feds want Jim to function outside the law, to “shoot first and ask questions later,” with little or no accountability.

“I’m always fascinated,” Ayer has said, “by the dark corners in which decisions get made and lives get changed.”[15] In fact, Jim’s life is changed a great deal by the cabalistic meeting: as a requirement for joining the task force, he is told he must give up all plans of marrying Marta. In a moment that feels like a pact with the devil, he sacrifices her, reasoning, “This is my career, I got one shot.” Meanwhile, Mike lucks into a dream job when he discovers one of his old drug connections working at a corporation where he has gone for an interview.

In high spirits, Jim and Mike round up their buddy Toussant (Chaka Forman) and drive down to Mexico for one last blow-out weekend. There Jim, hovering near a total mental collapse, experiences a psychotic break when Marta tells him she is pregnant. In a tense, disturbing scene, he pulls a gun on her and holds it to her neck. She bravely challenges him to pull the trigger, they struggle, and she escapes from him. Their party spoiled, the three men leave to go back to L.A..

Jim has secretly smuggled a large cache of drugs across the border and tries to coerce Mike into helping him unload it. The deal goes horribly wrong, and Jim, feeling himself thrown back into a combat situation, ends up gunning down four men, three of whom are unarmed. Jim himself gets shot while fleeing the scene. The bullet paralyzes Jim's spine; seeing no future for himself, he begs Mike to mercy-kill him. After tearfully refusing at first, Mike finally gives in and fulfills his friend’s last wish and then returns, profoundly shaken, to his girlfriend.

3.

Actor Christian Bale has already carved out a niche for himself playing boy-next-door psychopaths, most famously the role of Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000). What he brought to the enigmatic Bateman, a kind of blank handsomeness that could turn squirrelly-eyed and mean at the flick of a lash, is also what made his Batman the most compelling in the franchise. The same schizoid charm is also on display here, though Jim Davis has fewer moments of calm and repose than Bateman did (or Batman for that matter). Less uptight and upwardly mobile, Jim is a different kind of American psycho, not invested in snazzy business cards or the stiff competition for getting reservations at this week’s trendy N.Y.C. restaurant — in other words, not crazed by a wealth of meaningless material options but by a dearth of them. Jim is like a starved jackal prowling a battlefield for corpses. Ayer shot Harsh Times on location in impoverished inner-city L.A.: Jim and Mike’s impromptu street-jacking of a rival gang takes place in front of a massive prison-like concrete wall topped with rings of barbed wire and spray-painted with a huge graffiti tag. This gritty context is crucial to Jim’s character. Just as American Psycho ended with a missive from Ronald Reagan, whose covert wars and heartless “trickle-down economics” provided a backdrop for Bateman’s own running amok (including cold-blooded slayings of prostitutes and homeless black transients — i.e., disenfranchised minorities), so Ayer suggests that Jim is a product of his era.

Jim’s also a product of the military; in one scene we see him ironing a dress shirt with meticulous precision. His military training has left him emotionally depleted, rigid; nothing remains behind the mask of his face but another carefully guarded mask. “Sue the military or something” — his buddy Toussant’s laconic verdict on Jim’s condition —assumes that money can compensate for lost sanity and selfhood. But part of Jim’s underlying problem is precisely the way a price-tag is placed so implacably on everything today: human life, suffering, health and well-being.

Shadows of office buildings slide across the windows of Jim’s car ... ... subsuming him and Mike in a world which they cannot attain and which controls them from a lofty distance.

Downtown L.A.’s office buildings continuously slide across the windows of Jim’s car in a sinister usurpation of his identity. He is literally shadowed and effaced by these reflected skyscrapers where decisions are made every day, disturbing the innocent lives of millions of people while benefiting only a few. Jim’s military service has, after all, helped to make other, more untouchable people infinitely wealthier. Indeed, both Jim as well as Jack Starks in The Jacket live at the mercy of an older generation of white males who still retain ultimate political and social authority. Apart from Jim, most of the other Caucasian men in Harsh Times are “strawman” members of the establishment. There is a white cop who knew Jim and Mike from their youth; when he pulls them over for reckless driving, he lets them off the hook and tries to pal around with them, eager to go out clubbing some night, but they only snicker at him behind his back.

In fact there are two kinds of white men presented in Harsh Times — the establishment type who holds some badge of power, and the hipster (Jim) who is on intimate terms with people of color though also capable, we note, of pulling a kind of “racial/neocolonial rank” on them at any given moment. Robbing Flaco (Noel Guglielmi) and his gang at gunpoint, Jim slurs the manhood of one of the Hispanics, disdaining to take his new shoes because of his “little bitch feet.” Aware of his place in the chain of white command, Jim is often cowed by the older white men. Thus, in a scene where he is trying to beat a lie-detector test by clenching his buttocks, the examiner (Barry Colvert — not an actor but a real-life polygraph expert) spots what Jim is doing and tells him, “Son, I’ve been doing polygraph examinations since you were swimming in your daddy’s balls, so I know all the tricks.” The suggestive language here places Jim in a moment of Oedipal crisis, forcing him to play the devalued son to an all-knowing, omnipotent father figure.

When handed a plastic cup for his urine sample and asked if he can fill it, Jim snaps to attention: “I can fill a goddamn trash can, sir!” His essence, his inner life — the film implies — is itself already the stuff of refuse matter. Random, spontaneous acts of violence are the only things that make Jim feel temporarily alive. And although we recognize this as a cliché stretching back through a slew of postmodern fiction (Camus’ The Stranger, Bataille’s Blue of Noon and L’Abbé C, Mailer’s An American Dream), a certain amount of cliché and stereotyping must lay heavily over most of the characters in Harsh Times and The Jacket since, as people, they exist mainly as allegories, aggregates of statistical surveys and the expected odds.

They are people who have lost their subjectivity and become little more than objects in an object world. In The Jacket, the alcoholic Jean will fall asleep with a cigarette and immolate herself; no other fate can possibly await her dissolute life. Closing the inevitable circle, her daughter Jackie will grow up to repeat the same patterns of lonely isolation and substance abuse. Only Jack, who has already died, is able to recognize the true value of life, which the living overlook and deny or are prevented from experiencing fully. Like a guardian angel he makes it his mission to awaken some lost subjectivity in the doomed mother-and-daughter pair. “Sometimes I think we live through things,” he says in voiceover, “just to say that they happened ... to me and not to someone else.”

But this independent, autonomous “me” — swallowed up in the production-consumption nexus, exploited and commodified — is increasingly difficult to define. In Harsh Times we see that Mike has internalized the idea of material success as the basis of self-worth: there is a scene where he comes home to reconcile with Sylvia after fighting with her; he has just landed a job and stands in front of the TV to get her attention. “You aren’t made of glass,” she tells him reprovingly. “No,” he says proudly, armed with the official employees’ handbook that he holds out like a passport at a border check, “I’m made of me." However, because he has tried to locate his sense of self in a corporate job that represents capitulation to the social order as such (in which, as a Latino, he is already a minority), he claims an autonomy that is still severely qualified.

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