“Jacknife” (at the Mann Plaza, Westwood) is a small independent film, more suited to television in its scale and in its clear theatrical roots than the big screen, yet its key roles are so juicy that it attracted a major cast: Robert De Niro, Ed Harris and Kathy Baker. As admirable and affecting as it is, you cannot help but feel it would have more impact as a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation than as a movie.
Adapted by Stephen Metcalfe from his play “Strange Snow,” it illuminates the lingering effects of the Vietnam War on its veterans. De Niro is Meggs, a bearded, long-haired mechanic, an uninhibited, exuberant man who has seemingly come out of nowhere to settle in a small New England town, the home of his Vietnam buddie Dave (Harris), who shares the big old family home with his schoolteacher sister Martha (Kathy Baker). Very early on you are made to feel that, had Meggs not shown up, Dave and Martha would have probably managed to live out their disappointed lives.
Now that Meggs, whose wartime nickname was Jacknife, has arrived it’s clear that nothing will ever be the same for this brother and sister; their existence has become precarious. That Dave is far from happy to see him is compounded by the fact that Meggs and Martha, unalike as they are, are attracted to each other. Director David Jones effectively creates and sustains an unsettling atmosphere: you’re uncertain whether it’s Meggs or Dave who is most likely to lurch out of control. Clearly, Meggs is as desperately in need of connecting with people as Dave is profoundly disturbed by Meggs’ presence. In this increasingly volatile situation we’re made aware of how events in the past can become ticking time bombs.
“Jacknife” is the third film for Jones, a distinguished veteran of British theater and television. (“Betrayal” and “84 Charing Cross Road” were his first and second.) He combines a great gift for directing actors with an efficient, unpretentious style. However, unlike his two previous films, you hunger for images to match the powerhouse performances of his three stars. Meggs provides the most marvelous opportunities for De Niro to continually surprise--and often amuse--us with his portrayal of a man who seems to have discovered what he needs to make his life work but who is still scrambling to get a purchase on it.
Meggs is as caught up in his quest as Dave is clenched in denial, and as a result, Harris has some absolutely shattering moments. Kathy Baker, whose portrayals in “Street Smart” and “Clean and Sober” have established her as a distinctive and greatly gifted actress, finds countless ways in which to keep Martha from becoming the stereotype of a spinster schoolteacher.
Filmed on location primarily in Meriden, Conn., a key 19th-Century manufacturing center, with some interiors shot in Montreal, “Jacknife” (rated R for language and adult situations) is a work of standard kitchen-sink realism that cries for a more boldly cinematic, stylized look and a far more original score that the hearts-and-flowers elegiac composition provided by Bruce Broughton. Thankfully, there’s absolutely nothing pedestrian about Robert De Niro, Ed Harris and Kathy Baker.