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FilmForce » The Stax Report » Story
The Stax Report: Script Review of The Jacket!

Stax looks at Marc Rocco's genre screenplay, which George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh want to produce.

by Stax

2001-02-06

Steven Soderbergh

Man of the moment
Steven Soderbergh
will executive
produce this film.
Stax here with my reaction to the screenplay for The Jacket! This 124-page draft dated June 19th, 1999 was written by writer-director Marc Rocco (Murder in the First). Mandalay Pictures will produce this picture with Rocco directing it. Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney will executive produce it; there have been rumors that Clooney may act in it but that hasn't been confirmed yet. Warner Brothers will serve as the film's distributor. Centropolis is supposed to be doing the special effects work. The Jacket has been in development since 1998; Clooney and Soderbergh joined the project in the early summer of 1999. The Jacket had a projected Fall 2000 start but it never began filming. Frankly, I'm not sure what the current status of the film is. Clooney and Soderbergh are currently busy filming their Ocean's 11 remake while Rocco is also attached to direct The Winter Hill Gang but that project doesn't seem any further along than The Jacket.

The Jacket is a very hard story to describe, at least not without revealing too many spoilers. The protagonist is William "Billy" Starks, an orphan who served two tours of duty in Vietnam before suffering a (what-should've-been-fatal) head wound during a Mai Lai Massacre-type atrocity. (There's more of a story to this incident but I'll not get into that too much.) This leaves Billy with a metal plate in his head. Once back in the States, Billy's grown his hair long and is drifting across the country, getting in touch with Sixties counter-culture and the socio-political struggles of the times (he experiences San Francisco, the Civil Rights Movement, the drug-heavy rock scene). While hitchhiking through Georgia, Billy briefly meets a sweet little girl named Jackie and her stern mother. Little Jackie innocently makes off with Billy's most prized possession, his mother's golden wedding band. Later on, Billy's picked up by a shady fella named "Tenny". Unfortunately, Tenny's bad news and misfortune leads them into a tragic clash with a policeman. The policeman's killed, Tenny escapes, and Billy is convicted of killing the cop and is sent to Jessup Penitentiary. In prison, Billy's exposed to the gruesome, painful life of being on a chain gang in the Deep South, he witnesses the racist brutality of the guards, and is later subjected to the mind-shattering torture method that the guards and inmates have dubbed "the jacket". What exactly is the jacket?

The jacket is a near-medieval torture instrument, a straight-jacket complete with a face mask. The guards bind an unruly prisoner inside the jacket and then confine them within a cadaver drawer for a few days as punishment. Unfortunately, Billy – as a convicted cop killer – is a regular recipient of the jacket. This is where the story gets even stranger. Inexplicably, when he is confined in the jacket Billy is somehow able to travel into the future (1999) and interact with a now grown Jackie. Billy is trying to figure out how he dies in the past. In the future, Jackie is a reporter so she tries to help Billy. Eventually, she believes his far-fetched story and remembers him from her childhood. (Billy's excursions to 1999 only last a short awhile and only happen when he is put into the jacket.) All Billy knows for certain is the day and time of his death and that Tenny – now a convict himself in Jessup Penitentiary – is somehow involved. The end of the story is also concerned with Billy's preoccupation with the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

George Clooney

George Clooney
will produce &
possibly star.
If you're baffled by that plot summary, don't worry. I'm still dumbfounded by The Jacket. I have no idea if Billy actually did travel through time, if it was some kind of astral projection, or if it was all in his head. None of it is ever explained. The overall problem with The Jacket is that it tried to be too many different movies at once. Primarily, it is a genre tale about a man who seems to be able to cheat death and can travel into the future to investigate his own demise whenever he's confined in this certain straight-jacket. That's the strongest and most appealing plot line in the film. The Jacket is also a prison picture, showcasing the horrors of life on a chain gang. This was the most grueling and often cliché-ridden story line, chock full of redneck, Bible-toting, "N"-word using stereotypes. (This script bears a deep-set, overt loathing of the South and of Republicans.) Rocco's script also tried to be about the Sixties, about how the values and contributions of that generation were so much meaningful than those of today's generation. This was the most simplistic, grating, and preachy part of the script. The Sixties have been done to death on film!! The Jacket says nothing new about the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, or the Sixties counter-culture. It just recycles the most pedantic points-of-view about that era; it's enough to make even the most die-hard liberal cringe. Why is The Jacket so concerned with all of that stuff anyway? The story overextends itself trying to link all these elements together.

The Jacket had a complex and often incoherent narrative. It needed a simpler story line and more substantial characters. I still don't know what it was really about. Now, I'm sure Mr. Rocco's done a lot of work on his script since this draft so bear that in mind as you read my criticisms. I hope he's streamlined the narrative, dropped a lot of these other elements and just focused on the genre plot. That's "the movie" here and not all this Sixties reminiscing and "prison is hell" stuff. Buried underneath all that is an intriguing premise: a man who has cheated death is somehow able to interact with the future in order to deal with his past. That throughline, unfortunately, was made more confusing than it had to be. Overall, this draft of The Jacket left me wondering what the point of it all had been.

Rocco should nix all the "Vietnam massacre" stuff unless the film's really about that; otherwise, it's really an unnecessary subplot. It turned into a plot device that allowed Jackie to have her "big story". It was completely unbelievable, however, that her paper would run the story or that anyone would ever believe her. After all, her key source for it is a man thought to be dead! Another subplot that should either be cut or at least better explained is Billy's relationship with his fellow prisoner Mackenize. Mackenzie is an enormous black man scheduled to die on death row. (Calling John Coffey!) Mackenize is another victim of the jacket. This draft ends with Billy wrapping up Mackenize's loose ends with his family for him, and this coincides with the death of Martin Luther King. Why end the movie like this? This story had been about Billy and Jackie and their love story through time. Once that plot line is resolved the movie is over as far as I'm concerned. Ending it with Billy seeing to Mackenzie's wishes makes The Jacket their story. It isn't unless all the time travel and Vietnam stuff is ditched in favor of making The Jacket strictly a prison picture.

Harris Wofford

Former Senator
Harris Wofford
is a supporting
character here.
Oddly enough, The Jacket also incorporates real-life persons into its bizarre genre narrative. For example, lauded civil rights advocate Harris Wofford (later a U.S. Senator) is a major supporting character here. Why is a real person like Wofford used to fight Billy's case in court? And can the filmmakers even do that (legally)? The inclusion of Wofford just makes The Jacket that much more baffling. This draft even ends with a coda that tells us what Wofford went on to do with his career, including his fictionalized professional relationship with Mackenzie's daughter! Well, at least it's fictional as far as I know. If The Jacket is in any way based on a true story then I think I'll need medication to recover from that.

Buried somewhere within this narrative maze was a good idea for a good movie. This draft, though, just has too many stories going on at once and they're all for movies we've seen before. There are elements here from Jacob's Ladder, Cool Hand Luke, The Shawshank Redemption, and several Oliver Stone-esque passages. There were even a few Forrest Gump-like moments, that is if it were remade by David Fincher. Overall, I still just don't know what to make of The Jacket. Mr. Rocco's draft had an intriguing premise but it turned into one helluva mind-job instead. – STAX
 

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