There seems to be no end in sight to pop culture's fascination with -- or shameless exploitation of -- mental illness, especially where Vermonters are concerned. Following on the bruised heels of the Vermont Teddy Bear Company's recent marketing faux pas with its Valentine's Day "Crazy For You" bear, which came with commitment papers and a straitjacket, Hollywood has jumped back into the act. A new feature film from Warner Brothers, which opened nationwide last weekend, takes a few potshots at Vermonters, shell-shocked veterans and the mentally ill.
The Jacket is billed as a genre-bending, gothic sci-fi thriller about Jack Starks, a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant and Gulf War veteran who returns to his native Vermont with psychological problems. After suffering a bout of amnesia due to a near-fatal gunshot wound to the head, Starks, played by Academy Award winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist), is accused of killing a cop and is committed to a mental institution. There, his equally off-kilter psychiatrist straps him into a straitjacket, pumps him full of mind-altering drugs, and locks him in a drawer in the basement morgue. This rather unconventional treatment sends the vet traveling back and forth through time in a race to find a woman who can help him clear his name before he gets killed.
When called last week, the folks at the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI-Vermont) said they hadn't seen or even heard of the film yet. But they expressed concern that it will only reinforce myths and stereotypes about mental illness, particularly in Vermont.
"It seems to perpetuate the media's continued use of straitjackets and other inappropriate forms of mental-health treatment," noted Executive Director Jerry Goessel.
NAMI's "StigmaBusters Network" hasn't issued an alert yet about the film, though in the past, the group has taken to task other negative depictions of mental illness by the media. In August, for example, the group objected to a press kit from Universal Orlando Theme Parks that featured a convulsing psych patient in a straitjacket who is "driven insane" by the theme parks' "Halloween Horrors" event.
The lasting effects of The Jacket may be minimal, however. Despite the movie's notable star power, which also includes Kris Kristofferson, Jennifer Jason Leigh and producers George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, reviewers have called it exploitative, atrocious and inept. And it wasn't even filmed in the Green Mountain State.