This film appeared on someone's list of the best time travel movies, so I bought a copy and put it on the list of films to watch. There was no clamor for it, which is to some degree surprising because it is an interesting and enjoyable film with quite a few convolutions to catch the attention. So the analysis was worth doing.
It was an enjoyable film despite its problems, and well worth watching; but don't expect it to give any good lessons in how to craft a time travel story.
One might be a bit skeptical of a movie entitled The Jacket whose main character is named Jack and his love interest Jackie, but it proved to be an interesting film worth watching. The familiar cast does a good job of creating credible characters against the backdrop of a strange story of unexpected time travel.
Nothing I was told about this film before I saw it was at all informative, but it is difficult to say much about it without spoilers--although for that, there was only one "surprise" in the film that I did not anticipate. The main character narrates, and makes a big deal out of the fact that he died and came back to life, having been shot in the head as a soldier, Sargeant Jack Starks, by a boy he was trying to help while fighting in Iraq in 1991. His body had already been tagged for shipment for burial back in America when someone noticed that he blinked. Surgery removed the bullet, but he suffered from amnesia not merely for the incident but often in relation to stressful events. He is considered recovered, promised help, and shipped back to the state listed on his records as "home", Vermont, although there is no indication that he ever had any family.
It is twelve months later and snowing in Vermont when he is hiking and comes upon a stalled truck, an intoxicated driver by the roadside, and a precocious little girl. The girl introduces herself as Jackie and her mother as Jean, Jack gets the truck running, Jean becomes lucid enough to chase him away and resume driving. In the midst of this, Jackie asks about Jack's dogtags tied to his pack and he lets her keep them.
Sometime later that day he hitches a ride northbound; when the police pull over the vehicle, the driver comments that being in jail is worse than being in war. The next scene has Jack on trial for shooting to death Officer Harrison, with no memory of anything that day after Jean and Jackie. Because of his war injuries and amnesia, he is found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to Alpine Grove Psychiatric Hospital. There Doctor Tom Becker has been using a method of drug and isolation therapy to help supposedly insane criminals remember their crimes; he has used it on three previous patients, and begins using it on Jack. It involves securing the patient in a straitjacket--the jacket of the title--injecting him with drugs, and placing him in a morgue drawer for some number of hours. This apparently does cause Jack to remember events, ultimately even what happened on that day that left him wounded and unconscious from a bullet wound near a dead police officer and the gun that killed him; yet it has another effect which proves to be more significant, as he experiences events not in his memory but in the future.
He makes four such trips to the future, interesting in their means and some of the accompanying details but problematic in some ways; he returns to the past in three of them, which are the trips which give us our anomalies. These pose problems for all major theories of time travel, but the problems vary some and will have to be examined in turn.
How Jack travels to the future remains a mystery, but there are some points about it that are noteworthy, and we must comprehend parts of it to understand the story.
The traveler is drugged to make him compliant, but remains conscious and willful. It might be a muscle relaxant, or a mild anaesthetic. He is then secured in a full body restraint, the "jacket" of the title. He is then placed inside a morgue drawer, and left for an extended time.
The morgue drawer is something of a poor man's sensory deprivation tank. It is completely sealed, and therefore completely dark; it is also refrigerated, and the air inside is recycled but not vented to the outside, like a refrigerator. This thus means a lack of light, and a cool and drying environment (the reason Jack was often dehydrated upon removal), and a limited amount of oxygen. Yet it is not total deprivation--there are muffled sounds from outside and probably the noise of the refrigeration mechanism, and the smells trapped inside, and the victim can certainly feel the jacket when he attempts to move, although reduced peripheral circulation might impede that over time.
The intent seems to be to create an altered state of consciousness in which the insane criminal (Dr. Becker never entertains the possibility that his patient might not be guilty) either recalls events he has forgotten or admits that he always knew. The effect appears to be that Jack projects his consciousness into the future, where it forms a physical presence of himself as he is in 1992, only in 2007. He remains there for as long as his body remains undisturbed in the drawer back at the morgue.
More than once Jack comments that he is in the drawer in the morgue, but the one time he checks the drawer is empty. This seems peculiar, since on the one hand it would seem that he can only be in the future when his body is in the drawer, while on the other hand it must have been removed decades before.
The solution would seem to be a bit complicated, but it would work something like this: at the moment Jack moves to the future, he starts a clock that determines how long he can stay there; his spirit is removed from his body and experiences nothing at all. Then when the drawer opens, the clock ends, his spirit returns to his body, and we know how long he can be in the future. But it is still complicated at this point by the fact that he cannot yet have visited "the future", because in order for him to be there there must be a chain of events leading to it--Jackie must grow fifteen years older, Jean must die in a fire, events must transpire to create the future he is visiting. Then when the future reaches the point of arrival, his spirit--which has been waiting in some kind of para-temporal pocket--creates the new body, maintaining it for as long as he was in the drawer. Then it returns to the moment the drawer opens, the future body dissolving.
At this point we must digress to consider whether this story works under any common theory of time travel; we will begin looking at the possibility of a fixed time solution.
The problem created by Jack traveling to the future while his body is in the drawer seems on its face to require a fixed time solution. In such an understanding, the future has already happened and cannot be altered; moving through time is like teleporting in space, landing in one place and then another, but in some sense already existing at all those moments. That would mean that whatever Jack was going to do he has already done. This solves the predestination paradoxes created in the film: because Jack is going to tell Doctor Lorenson how to treat her secret patient Babak, when he meets her in the future he can learn from her what he, from his perspective, had not yet told her, because from her perspective he already did and she can tell him.
Thus in a sense when Jack travels to the future, he is seeing not what he is going to do or what is going to happen, but what he has already done, what has already happened. He is living his life out of sequence, but even though he does not know the intervening events he does what he is in some sense destined to do--and in some sense not destined, more like programmed, that he has already done everything he will ever do, and by living through those moments he discovers what they are.
This, though, fails in the end. We know that before his last departure to the future, Jack takes a letter to Jean, in which he warns her that the combination of cigarettes and alcohol will prove deadly, that she will burn to death in a fire leaving Jackie alone to live much the same life as her mother. We also know that this changed Jean's life, and Jackie's life, because Jean is alive in the last scene (she calls Jackie) and Jackie is no longer waitressing at the diner but working at the hospital. In a fixed time story, that could not happen, because just as the effect of Jack telling Doctor Lorenson that she will save Babak is that Doctor Lorenson remembers him telling her how to save the boy, the effect of Jack telling Jean how to avoid her death has to be either that Jean dies anyway, or that Jean never died and Jack never knew she died.
Thus it is ultimately not a fixed time story, because Jack manages to change history. Perhaps, though, it is a multiple dimension theory story.
Having excluded a fixed time explanation, we turn to the possibility that it might be resolved by multiple dimension theory. This solves the problem of changing the future, because Jack could visit the future in which Jean dies, then travel back to another universe (whether he creates it or moves to it) in which he alters events so that Jean lives, without changing the future history of the world in which she dies.
Here, though, we have the problem of getting that far in the story, and it lies in the predestination paradox which the fixed time approach resolved so neatly last time. When Jack is in the future he learns that something he told Doctor Lorenson enabled her to cure Babak, and he discovers what that was; when he returns to the past, he tells her what she told him. However, he must have begun in a universe in which he never told her, and thus it is very difficult to see how he could have come into a universe in which he had already told her--every iteration of Jack leaves with no knowledge of Babak, and even what Jackie reads about Babak is itself dependent on Jack telling Doctor Lorenson how to cure him. Thus no version of Jack can enter a world in which he has already told Doctor Lorenson how to cure Babak without coming from a world in which he has already done so. That universe cannot exist, and cannot come into existence.
To clarify, for Jack to bring back word of how to cure Babak, he must land in a future in which he has already done so; but such a future can only exist if there is a version of Jack who already landed in such a universe, and such a universe can only exist if there is a version of Jack who has already landed in it. What is simple for fixed time theory proves to be at best convoluted and more likely impossible for multiple dimension theory. Jack cannot arrive in the future of a universe which he cannot have caused to exist.
Nor is this resolved by Jackie's discovery of the Babak case in her research. She found it because it was connected to events following Jack's death; it was so connected because it happened at about the same time, because Jack gave Doctor Lorenson the needed clue. Without Jack's help, it is unlikely in the extreme that Babak would have been cured at that time, if ever; equally unlikely is that Doctor Lorenson would have mentioned or discussed Babak without the connection between him and Jack.
There thus seems to be no way to get the history in which Jack obtains information about curing Babak from Doctor Lorenson in order to give it to Doctor Lorenson, and our multiple dimension theory solution fails.
The reader might be expecting at this point that having shown that the story does not work under fixed time nor under multiple dimension theory, we are now going to show how it does work under replacement theory. Unfortunately, though, it does not--that is, the story as we see it could not have happened, and for many of the reasons already discussed in relation to the other theories. The resolution of the predestination paradoxes requires finding an original cause that could have brought those events into existence, replaced by the actions of the time traveler, but we have already despaired of such an original cause. The altered ending, in which Jack changes the history of the future based on knowledge of what it was which he undoes in making the change, drives the story into an infinity loop. It cannot happen.
However, that's the simple answer; it does not look at the details, and the details of the story are still interesting. There are several paradoxes, some of which might be resolved, and also several impossibilities that are worth examining.
We must return to the method of time travel, in which Jack is locked in the drawer and removed some hours later, during which time his spirit projects a physical body to a point in the future. It would seem that Jack's spirit (or soul or consciousness or whatever you would call it) must leave his body, and then remains separated from his body for fifteen years (from the moment late in 1992 when he is put in the drawer to the moment late in 2007 when he arrives); it cannot return to his body until after it has had its experience in the future. If we assume that it returns to the body when the drawer is opened, then it can never reach the future that has not yet happened.
Thus when Doctor Becker opens the drawer, Jack will be either dead or catatonic, completely unresponsive at best. If he is catatonic, he will be moved to a ward where he can receive tube feeding, kept alive for some number of years while they attempt to determine what is wrong with him. We cannot guess what they would find on an electroencephalogram; we do not know enough about this spirit journey to know what kind of brain activity remains behind. We can say that he will never awaken, and probably will die before the fifteen years elapses. If he is dead, of course he will be buried in the yard, and there will be some kind of investigation.
Fifteen years later, he appears not far from Jackie, goes home with her, finds his dog tags at her house, and tries to persuade her that he is Jack Starks. If he died, the story works, because she tells him that he died--but she has the date wrong, as he probably did not die on January first, dying either a few days before that date or quite a while after it.
His time ends, and he returns to 1992; history is rewound to the moment the drawer opens, and he awakens. The other history no longer exists, and this one continues. This happens twice more, and again the information he gets from the future is inaccurate; but the trips also interact with each other, as each time the date of his death probably changes, at least slightly, but he does not know this. That is, supposing that in the first instance he was found on Christmas Eve, that is what Jackie tells him on the first trip; he returns to the past, and does not die on Christmas Eve, but instead makes the next trip on Boxing Day, which moves his date of death to the twenty-sixth or twenty-seventh, and that is what she tells him, but it is also what she tells him on the first trip, as that history was rewritten and he arrives in the midst of that.The film is thus confusing and convoluted; we will attempt to separate the various complications and address them individually.
The anomalies in The Jacket are not only convoluted, they are interwoven in ways that makes it challenging to disentangle them. It is also difficult to put them in any kind of order, as all of them begin before any resolve. However, we will begin with the issue of Doctor Tom Becker and "the names".
It is in Jack's third trip to the future that he confronts the future Doctor Becker. Becker is the man responsible for his "treatments" in the drawer. He recognizes Jack when Jack appears, supposing him to be a relative of the man who died; Jack tells him that he is the man who died, and he wants to know how.
At this point it is important to recognize, as we mentioned, that Jack did not die either of a head wound or on New Year's Day. He was put in the drawer for what was the fourth time (his first trip to the future occurs during his second experience in the drawer), and when he emerged he was either dead or catatonic. That was a day or two prior to the date of death given in the film, but it is the event which will at this point be known to Jack, to Jackie, and to Becker. That is a separate problem; however, it creates this problem, because even though Becker opened that drawer fifteen years ago, in this first version of that history in which Jack has leapt across time to ask him about it, Becker remembers, not hearing those names, but finding Jack in an unresponsive condition. Thus the conversation is very different, and Becker does not say that he never put Jack back after Jack told him the names; he never put Jack back because Jack never regained consciousness. Thus we have a predestination paradox, in which Jack tells Becker the names in 1993 because Becker told them to Jack in 2007, but there is no reason for Becker to mention them--at least, that part of the conversation does not happen that way the first time, so Jack does not have the names.
It is not an insurmountable problem, though. After Jack's first trip to the future, Becker mentions one of the others to him, Ted Casey, as having been given this treatment because he was a child molester and murderer. It would be reasonable for Jack to ask Becker what happened to Casey, and to any others who were treated, and for Becker to say that Jack was only the fourth such patient, all sent to him against his will and theirs as criminally insane, and that along with Casey, Nathan Pinchowski and Jackson MacGregor also died due to the effects of the treatment. At that point, Jack learns the names, takes them back with him, and as he awakens in the past he shouts them at Becker, creating a new history in which Becker remembers Jack awakening and confronting him with the names of the other patients. This history, at least, has a reasonable chance of stabilizing, as this change creates the history in which Becker brings up the names, and thus we have an informational predestination paradox which creates a brief sawtooth snap which resolves to an N-jump. It also gives some impetus to Jack's efforts, because in this version of history Doctor Becker really did kill him, albeit unintentionally as an effect of the treatment.
That may be the simplest complication in the movie.
We already looked at the problem created by Jack's knowledge of Doctor Lorenson's patient Babak; what was a problem for multiple dimension theory is also a problem for replacement theory: Lorenson cannot tell Jack that he told her how to help the patient unless Jack has already done so, and Jack cannot know that Babak has anything to do with him unless Lorenson says so. The fact that Jackie found something about Babak in her searches regarding Jack and Alpine Grove does not help; in fact, it is possible that without Jack's help Doctor Lorenson never cured Babak, or that if she did it was years later and not an event connected with the time Jack died. We have an informational predestination paradox which defies resolution.
The ordinary solution to such a paradox is to find a cause for one side or the other which is plausible under the known history but which is replaced by the actions of the time traveler. In this case, Doctor Lorenson must use the electroshock therapy apart from Jack's advice, and Jack must subsequently learn of it to tell her in the future. Doctor Lorenson is keeping Babak secret. She would not attempt electroshock therapy first because she has misdiagnosed the problem, and second because even with the correct diagnosis she considers electroconvulsive therapy too dangerous for a child as young as Babak. She is not going to stumble onto this answer, and no one is going to offer it to her. Given this, Jack is probably not going to discover that Babak even exists, and if somehow he does he, with no medical training, won't be able to diagnose that a young patient he has never seen has a condition no one has guessed which can be cured by a treatment no one would think or dare to use.
Is it impossible? Something completely outrageous could occur. The investigation into Jack's death might uncover Doctor Lorenson's treatment of this patient, whose care might be given to some other doctor who diagnoses the seizures and attempts the experimental treatment; Jackie might stumble onto this when she is researching events, if the materials mention that Doctor Lorenson had been trying traditional methods for some extended time before the other doctor took over the case. Jackie might mention it to Jack in the future, who might then realize that he can use that information in the past, and so tell Doctor Lorenson that she has misdiagnosed the child and that someone else is going to cure him with ECT, which she then attempts successfully, changing history such that thereafter she did cure him due to Jack's comment, and she can tell Jack what it was. Yet the odds are against every step here. Babak probably will not be discovered in the investigation. If he is transfered to care elsewhere, they are unlikely either to make a better diagnosis or try an unorthodox therapy. If they do and they succeed, they might publish, but such an article would not name doctors who had failed in treating the patient previously or a patient who is a minor. It also would be unlikely to be in a place Jackie would find it. Altogether, it has that probability of occurrence that makes it seem impossible.
Thus some absurd chain of events might have caused this loop, but there does not appear to be one that is at all plausible.
To this point we have been discussing problems that are strictly related to the time travel aspects of the film. Although the film is quite enjoyable, really, there were several other points at which it snapped our disbelief suspenders, that should be mentioned.
Jack is sent to Alpine because he is found "not guilty by reason of insanity" of shooting a police officer. Jack had hitched a ride in a station wagon, and the police pulled over the car and asked the occupants to exit; the driver produced a gun and killed the officer, left Jack and the gun by the roadside, and drove away. This is sometime in 1992. Jack is found unconscious near the dead officer, and charged with the crime. (It is unclear whether he was accidentally shot or simply collapsed from the stress.)
The first problem here is that it is standard procedure for police to inform their dispatchers of their actions. This officer would have radioed that he had stopped a car, specific make, model, and color, with plate number, and that he was getting out of his vehicle to approach it. The first question investigators are going to ask when backup arrives on the scene is, what happened to the car? They are probably going to begin a state-wide search for it, and whether they find it or not the defense is going to raise the issue, that Officer Harrison had stopped a vehicle and the vehicle was gone when help arrived. We have reasonable doubt, a high probability that the shooter left two victims by the roadside.
The second problem lies in the verdict, "not guilty by reason of insanity". Although states use different standards, this verdict requires that the defendant is proven guilty in the sense that he did it, but that either he did not know what he did was wrong or he was unable to control his action. Neither of those cases apply here. Rather there would have been a competency hearing, at which the defense would have asserted that Jack was not competent to stand trial because he was unable to assist in his own defense. The result would have been similar, as he would have been ordered into treatment to restore his memory of events so that he would be able to participate in his own trial. However, there is a significant difference between a suspect held for trial and a convict sentenced to treatment.
Doctor Lorenson's actions are often dubious, at the least unprofessional. We can debate the wisdom of trying a dangerous and non-approved therapy because it was recommended by a patient whose diagnoses include "delusional"; but it is unethical for her to tell Jack about Rudy's history. Even if there were an indication that Jack was afraid of Rudy, which is entirely absent, she should not have said more than that what Rudy told Jack was untrue, that he had never been violent and was not believed to be a danger to others.
Psychiatric secure wards have a lot of locked doors, so that patients cannot wander into areas where they do not belong. It would be easy enough for Doctor Becker to have the keys to take Jack to the basement, but years later neither Jack nor the patient Damon who follows him would be able to reach that area. That it is "restricted" or "off limits" does not prevent psych patients from entering; locks are used. The same applies to exterior doors. Jack could not escape the building by using a side entrance; any such exit would be either locked or alarmed.
When Jackie researches events surrounding Jack's death, she learns the name of the patient Babak from published reports. However, patient confidentiality would keep his name out of the media even if he were not a minor, which again means his identity would not have been publicized. Jackie cannot get the name.
Little mistakes like these stretch credulity, making the picture a bit more difficult to believe. There are enough of them to make us wonder whether the writer knew anything about his setting.
As we noted, the date of Jack's death changes each time he returns to the past: the second time he is put in the drawer (his first trip to the future) he is dead (or comatose or catatonic) when they remove him, but fifteen years later he leaves the future and returns, giving life to his 1993 body. This happens again on his second and third trips, shifting the date.
It is in this significant that he never dies of a head wound. There are several repercussions of this.
First, when they confront Lorenson on his second trip (the first time) she is not at all reluctant to discuss Jack's cause of death: he died due to Doctor Becker's unorthodox treatment. Since Jack landed in a hospital bed after the first two sessions, it will not surprise him that this happened after the third. Mystery solved, Jack has no need to pursue it further.
That means he does not confront Becker, which knocks out that entire thread.
It will also prove terribly confusing. In the film, the fear he expresses to Jackie is that this is his last trip because it is the last time Becker put him in the drawer. That fear will be amplified, because he has now been told that he never recovered from that last time. Yet when he returns, he awakens, confused because rumors of his death seemed greatly exaggerated.
Fortunately that will lead to the delivery of the letter (assuming we overcome the Babak problem) and to the fatal blow to the head. This rewrites everything. He now is found dead on New Year's Day of a head wound, Doctor Lorenson is reluctant to discuss it, and he confronts Doctor Becker and takes back the names. Everything seems to be falling into place as we see it in the film, albeit with a few complicated sawtooth snaps to get there.
However, we now come to the biggest problems of all.
After Jack's last return to the past, he does five significant things, all of which we have already mentioned: He gives Doctor Becker the names, tells Doctor Lorenson how to cure Babak, delivers a letter to Jean, bangs his head, and gets back in the drawer. This changes every future history, and in many cases it gives us the future we see in the film. It gives us all the parts about Jack dying on January first of a head wound.
However, that means that in any history in which Jack receives the head wound Jean got the letter; and if Jean got the letter she didn't die, and Jackie is not the waitress but the hospital worker. This creates a much more complicated problem, but it means that the scenes we actually see in the movie could never have happened as we see them: by the time Jackie knows that Jack died on New Year's Day, he has already given the letter to Jean, and nothing else he does or does not do will change whether Jean reads the letter and changes her life so that she lives. It certainly appears that sending the letter fixed Jackie's life, and probably it did; but it did so long before she began trying to find out what happened to Sargeant Jack Sparks.
That raises another serious problem. We can certainly accept that in his first trips to the future, that is, the first time he left from the drawer and the second time he left from the drawer in their original histories, he discovered a world in which Jean had died and Jackie was struggling as a waitress drinking herself toward death. However, once he sends that letter he changes Jackie's life, not merely when he arrives on his last trip but also when he arrives on the other three. Consider: if the letter Jack sends alters Jackie's life such that she works at the hospital instead of the diner, then the first time he arrived she worked at the hospital rather than the diner; if the letter means Jean never died, then the first time he arrived Jean had not died. He has altered the future history of the world in a way that undoes the bad events he witnessed. He will never meet the self-destructive waitress version of Jackie, never learn that Jean died in a fire from her own cigarette when she passed out from her own drinking--and, ultimately, never write the letter warning her of these things. He has undone the information that is the basis for what he does to undo it. He has created an infinity loop. It stretches from the first moment he traveled to the future (because this is where he gets, or in this case does not get, his information about the future) to the moment he leaves for the past on his final return (because this is the last moment of that unaltered future which he is about to change).
This of course could work under multiple dimension theory, because Jack could have visited a world in which Jean died and then created a history in another world in which she survives; however, he still would not be able to find a world in which he died of a head wound on January first and did not deliver the letter, so that remains a problem. Further, we have already seen that other aspects of the film do not work under that theory. Further, in this world it must still be that the Jack in the asylum has traveled to the future, and thus that this Jackie would recognize this Jack as that one--it appears that she has no idea who he is when she last emerges from the diner, and that means that she never met him before, that no version of him ever traveled to this future. It is not rational.
Overall it was an enjoyable movie, and if you don't think about it you might even believe it to be plausible. However, it is inconsistent in its handling of the changes it makes, some things seeming to work under fixed time and others under multiple dimension theory. If the Babak problem could be resolved, it might all fit under replacement theory with an infinity loop ending, but Jack could not then arrive in the future to meet Jackie so we would have no ending to the story.
We do have an ending for our analysis, however. It was an interesting, convoluted, and challenging film, but in the end it fails as a time travel story.