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'Jacket' unfolds into chilling mystery

What happens to Adrien Brody in ''The Jacket" shouldn't happen to a dog. It probably wouldn't happen to a dog or PETA would slap the producers with a lawsuit. Oscar-winning stars seeking that next jolt of career juice, on the other hand, can take a little abuse.

Playing Gulf War soldier Jack Starks, Brody is: shot in the head by an adorable Arab tyke; nearly buried alive; left with retrograde amnesia; shipped home to Vermont, where he hitches a ride with a sleazebag who frames the poor, woozy sod on a cop-killing charge; railroaded into a mental institution that appears to have been designed by the architectural firm of Lovecraft & Poe; shot up with a mystery potion by a fetid-looking Kris Kristofferson; and then left to sleep it off in a morgue drawer.

That's in the first 15 minutes.

You're not entirely sure where John Maybury's film can go from here -- will it be ''Gothika"-style horror? a metaphysical jigsaw like ''Jacob's Ladder"? -- but you're certain Brody is doing some almighty twitching up there on the screen. Wracked, skeletal, alternately whimpering and shrieking in pain and confusion, the ''Pianist" best actor makes such a convincing victim that he gives Jim Caviezel in ''The Passion of the Christ" a run for his martyrdom.

Just when you're about to give up, though -- and here I ask those who prefer their plot surprises to be surprising to step away from the newspaper -- ''The Jacket" plays its hand. Sitting in that dark drawer in 1992, Jack feverishly and literally daydreams himself into the year 2007, and the film turns into one of those time-loop head trips that keeps its hero frantically parsing the relationship between cause and effect.

Before he hitched that fatal ride, see, Jack paused to help out a stranded motorist and alcoholic mom named Jean (Kelly Lynch) while befriending her 8-year-old daughter Jackie (Laura Marano). Once he time-travels 15 years into the future -- please don't ask me how this works -- he's reacquainted with Jackie, all grown up and played with brooding anger and black fingernails by Keira Knightley. Not only has her mother died during the intervening time, she informs Jack, but so has he -- 15 years ago. Some quick calculation reveals that the Jack Starks lying in the asylum morgue has four days to live.

So ''The Jacket" becomes an extremely odd sort of murder mystery, not to mention a preposterous but engaging cross-chronological love story. The template, clearly, is ''Memento," Christopher Nolan's modern classic of fractured time and culpability, and Maybury, the British director who made the 1998 Francis Bacon biopic ''Love is the Devil," does everything he can to give ''Jacket" a similar post-gothic sizzle. The cinematography by Peter Deming (''Mulholland Dr.") de-saturates the colors until the movie feels like a bruise, and Emma E. Hickox's editing practically does jumping jacks trying to keep us off balance. (The score by celebrated rock brainiac Brian Eno, by contrast, seems strangely perfunctory.)

''The Jacket" is no ''Memento," though. Too much light shines through the holes of the plot, the tone gets stuck on the B-movie level, and the underpinnings of romance and revenge are trite for all the fancy trimmings. Still, the film is leagues smarter than ''The Butterfly Effect," last year's silly Ashton Kutcher time-looper that legions of slackers seem convinced is a great, even important, movie.

The acting makes the difference, and in ''Jacket" it rises above the needs of the material. Kristofferson is a greasy old hoot as the villain, while art-film heartthrob Daniel Craig (''Enduring Love") plays against type as a dithery fellow inmate of Jack's. Lynch, as the alky mom, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, as a doctor, don't have much to do, but Knightley convincingly moves into emotionally sexy/surly adult territory, even if her character buys Jack's story a lot faster than you or I ever would. (As for the sequence in which 1992-era Jack revisits his future lover as a young girl -- well, that's creepy in all the wrong ways).

Brody, for his part, slowly transforms from a sacrificial lamb to a canny time-surfer, like a man waking from a dream. One wonders if the actor had the same sensation as he looked up to find himself in this artful dead-end pulp.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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