By the mid-1980s, the American public was finally coming to terms with the effects of their involvement in the Vietnam War. Oliver Stone’s film Platoon (1986) opened the popular culture floodgates and soon a cottage industry of war-related material was everywhere, from Time-Life books to television shows to comic books. Hollywood also capitalized on the renewed fascination with the war and the people that fought in it by releasing films that were either set in Vietnam during the war or stateside in present time with returning soldiers still coping with the trauma of being over there. One of the best examples of the latter was a small, independent film entitled Jacknife (1989) starring Robert De Niro, Ed Harris and Kathy Baker. Adapted from the play Strange Snow by its playwright, Stephen Metcalfe, the film is a smartly-written, well-acted character study about people trying to put their lives back together while living with unresolved issues.
One day, Joseph “Megs” Megessey (Robert De Niro) shows up unannounced to take his friend Dave Flannigan (Ed Harris) out to the opening day of fishing. He lives with his sister Martha (Kathy Baker) who’s understandably surprised and upset to be woken up by a strange man pounding on her front door. Megs quickly disarms her with his easy-going charm and pretty soon they’re rousing Dave out of bed, much to his chagrin. He’s a raging alcoholic and has a typical antagonistic sibling relationship with Martha.
These early scenes are very well-played by the three actors as they tell us a lot about their respective characters and the dynamic between them. Robert De Niro plays Megs as an enthusiastic whirlwind of upbeat energy while in sharp contrast Harris’ portrays Dave as a bitter man who drinks to suppress deep-rooted anger and pain. Kathy Baker plays Martha as a somewhat reserved woman who is bemused by Megs’ gregarious nature.
Even though Dave claims that Megs is not his friend, they are bonded for life thanks to their experiences fighting together in the Vietnam War, which saw them both get wounded while their best friend Bobby (Tom Isbell) was killed – something that continues to haunt the two men. Dave drinks to forget and just wants to be left alone while Megs decides to try and reach him and in doing so maybe help himself in the process. Jacknife explores how Megs and Dave’s tenuous friendship is threatened by the former’s growing romantic interest in Martha.
Ed Harris has always been willing to disappear into the characters he plays with little concern for vanity and this film is no exception. We first meet Dave passed out in bed, sleeping off last night’s drinking binge. He’s a balding unshaven mess and the actor isn’t afraid to show his character’s flaws while also hinting at early on why Dave is such an unpleasant man. Harris suggests a deep reservoir of guilt and regrets that exists within Dave by the way he carries himself and acts towards Martha and Megs. With the former there is a long-standing antagonistic relationship common with siblings but she doesn’t understand his behavior because he refuses to talk to her about his experiences in Vietnam. With the latter, Dave shares a special bond that only comes with being in life and death situations with someone and they are able to talk about the war.
Robert De Niro played a Vietnam War veteran in The Deer Hunter (1978), but while that character was much more restrained, internalizing his feelings, Megs in Jacknife is the polar opposite. He is a chatty guy who is unfailingly polite and an optimist but De Niro’s performance suggests that this covers up a lot of pain. Unlike Dave, he’s trying to deal with it, but both men are wracked with survivor’s guilt, haunted by their experiences during the war. It is great to see two incredibly skilled actors like De Niro and Harris play off each other as Megs tries to reach Dave. This is done gradually over the course of the film in nice moments like when Megs encourages Dave to join in a game of basketball with fellow truck drivers.
Kathy Baker plays an intelligent, independent woman who has been taking care of her brother for so long that she has no life of her own and it takes Megs’ arrival to break her daily routine. Her role may not be as flashy as De Niro’s or Harris’ but she more than holds her own with them. Megs and Martha’s relationship has a refreshing reciprocal nature as he awakens feelings in her that have been dormant for some time and she helps him heal emotionally, providing something that is lacking from his life.
Jacknife received generally positive notices from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Jacknife redeems it in the specifics of the performances. De Niro, Harris and Baker seem to be oblivious to the ‘message,’ and lose themselves in the personalities of their characters. And so the movie works.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas called it, “admirable,” and “affecting.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “But where Jacknife is patronizing, it’s also openhandedly compassionate; where it falls into trite, Baker, De Niro and Harris (doing what he can with a one-note role) pick it up and dust it off.” However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “But the actors, good as they are, are becalmed by the film’s ponderous way of unwrapping layer after layer of Megs’s and Dave’s Vietnam experience until the expected catharsis has been achieved.”
Jacknife is a wonderfully understated slice-of-life character study about damaged people trying to heal wounds that run deep under the surface. David Jones’ direction is straightforward so that the focus is on the excellent performances and Metcalfe’s well-written screenplay. The only flaw is the score by Bruce Broughton, which is obvious and manipulative, often telling us how we should feel during a given scene. Fortunately, the rest of the film is so strong that this weak element doesn’t detract from everything else.
Jacknife is an important film in the sense that it shows the collateral damage created by war. Young men are sent off into battle and either come back dead or wounded – either emotionally, physically or both. It is the kind of damage that can take a lifetime to heal. Some try to outrun it or numb the pain with alcohol and drugs. This film suggests that only by confronting one’s demons can you have a chance at conquering them. The healing process is not easy and often it takes the support others to get through it. Jacknife is about the importance of human connection, being there for others during the best and worst of times. It’s an honest depiction of the shattered lives created by war that doesn’t resort to cheap sentimentality and for that it should be commended.