Jacknife

Regardless of the film, Robert De Niro can be counted on to provide some remarkable moments. In Jacknife, De Niro shows again how simplicity can be the key to the highest form of film acting. His character is a likable lower-class guy in bushy beard and sloppy clothes; the mechanic’s grease is always under his fingernails.

In one scene, he takes his new girlfriend out to a fancy restaurant. She asks him whether he’s been there before; of course, he says – well, he’s passed it a couple of times, anyway. Then the waitress comes by and asks if the couple might enjoy cocktails before dining. “Cocktails?” wonders De Niro. “Something elegant?” suggests the waitress. De Niro considers this for a moment and nods, “Elegant is good.” The look on De Niro’s face, his confusion and helplessness, is a wonderful, precise sketch of the character’s place in the world. (He orders “a couple of Buds.”)

In general, Jacknife presents a bounty of such opportunities for its three main actors. The screenplay, by Stephen Metcalfe (adapted from his play, Strange Snow) is somewhat short on narrative continuity, but it does have this trio of strong roles.

De Niro plays a guy who’s been just hanging on in the two decades since the war; his aggressive cheeriness is clearly his way of keeping the world in balance. He goes to visit an old war buddy (Ed Harris) who is in much worse shape; Harris, a truck driver, is grumpy and alcoholic. He shares a house with his sister (Kathy Baker), who tends to and worries about him. She accuses him of dating “women whose idea of contributing to a conversation is to snap their gum.”

Harris wants no part of De Niro’s friendly overtures. Both are haunted by the young man who didn’t come back from Vietnam. De Niro, however, gets on well with the sister, a plain schoolteacher, who couldn’t be less like him.

De Niro is quite good. After a period of minimalist performances, he seems looser, airier in his recent work (including last year’s Midnight Run). Harris, the scrupulously fine actor from Places in the Heart, is very good at putting off the histrionics until they’re absolutely needed.

Kathy Baker, recently seen in Clean and Sober, is usually described in magazine articles as “not conventionally pretty.” That’s true, but she’s beautiful in ways that pretty actresses don’t always know anything about, and she’s turning into one of our most sympathetic movie presences. All of these performances owe a lot to the sensitive direction of England’s David Jones (Betrayal), a deft hand with actors. Jones can’t quite make the script seem more than it is, but he certainly gets the most out of it.

First published in The Herald, March 10, 1989

Does this movie have any sort of profile at all? You’d think it would, with the cast. I was getting pretty tired of De Niro’s minimalist phase by this point, but he wasn’t through with it yet. Jones had a curious movie career; he came out of theater and British TV, made the two features mentioned here as well as the charming 84 Charing Cross Road, and then – save for a Harold Pinter-scripted version of The Trial with Kyle MacLachlan as Josef K., and 1999’s The Confession, with Ben Kingsley – went into American TV.

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