Jacknife (1989) Directed by David Hughes Jones. With Robert De Niro, Ed Harris and Kathy Baker.
The torment of post-traumatic stress disorder and its effect on US soldiers who served in Vietnam has played a significant role in the career of Robert De Niro. Once again, in Jacknife, De Niro gives a powerful performance, that while not as career-defining as his turn in Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, is still alive with that same alarming edge that made the actor so revered throughout the 1970’s and ’80’s.
The set-up is simple and revolves around an awkward relationship between De Niro’s dishevelled ‘Megs’, his old war buddy Dave (an outstanding Ed Harris) and Dave’s sister, Martha, played with beautiful vulnerability and warmth by Kathy Baker. In essence, it’s a film that doesn’t have a central plot as such, as the drama evolves from the troubled history of its three main characters.
If ever a film were to be defined by its performances, then Jacknife is a contender. Director, David Hughes Jones, has a firm background in television, a medium with limitations that have often forced directors to focus directly on actors, as opposed to the grander scale that cinema affords. Sure enough, Jacknife often feels enclosed by a televisual style that paves the way for the three main actors to shine. While De Niro prowls around with an urgent edge that gives the impression he might blow at any second, Ed Harris, for two-thirds, is more restrained but worryingly brooding all the same. Binding them together is Kathy Baker (Helen Mirren meets Naomi Watts anyone!?), whose kindness and affability in the face of such unpredictable men make her the film’s most endearing presence.
Jacknife is a film you could easily overlook. It isn’t peppered with iconic moments and in terms of style, David Hugh Jones is no Scorsese, but the script (based on a play) is an absolute winner and the three central performances are excellent. 3.5/5