Jacknife (1989): David Jones Tale of Vietnam Vets, Starring De Niro and Ed Harris

David Jones’ sensitive and compelling, but familiar drama, Jacknife, explores the isolation and despair faced by two former-Vietnam War pals, well played by Robert De Niro and Ed Harris.

The movie received mixed reviews from the film critics but failed at the box-office, perhaps because it appeared rather late, at the end of a cycle of critical Vietnam War films, which at its height included “The Deer Hunter,” “Coming Home,” and “Platoon.

Set in a small Connecticut town, the script, adapted by Stephen Metcalfe from his own play “Strange Snow,” concerns the unexpected visit of Megs (De Niro), a ex-Vietnam warrior, to his buddy Dave (Harris), who is living with Martha (Kathy Baker), his unmarried sister, a teacher.

The visitor, emotionally maladjusted, confides that he is getting help from a veteran’s encounter group, led by Charles S. Dutton.  Dave, on the other hand, relies on his heavy drinking to forget his traumatic war experiences. A former high-school star athlete, he now spends his time bad-mouthing his sister. Though she initially disapproves of the visitor, she later begins an affair with him.

Megs is loud and abrasive–they call him “Jacknife” because he loved to wreck trucks—and his behavior is often crazy; his appearance with his scraggly beard suggests that “something” is wrong with him.

The movie opens as Megs arrives one morning to take Dave fishing.  Dave lives with his sister Martha, who takes good care of him while he wastes his years away getting drunk.  Dave wants nothing to do with the world, working long, lonely hours as a truck driver. He’s still haunted by the ghosts of the war, particularly the loss of a dear friend. Though edgy and beleaguered, Martha is the stabile point in his life, a reliable companion.

Megs and Martha slowly fall for each other, while Megs tries to help Dave find peace of mind.   The characters are more complex than the plot, which is familiar, and their individual journeys toward redemption and passable equilibrium are for the most part compelling.  Predictably, Dave repeatedly rejects the group’s help, only to change his mind at the end. The film also contains the by-now obligatory flashbacks of the horrors of the Vietnam War, which had left indelible impact on the men. .

The film is directed by Brit David Jones, who in 1983 made a well-acted screen version of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” starring Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge. As scripted and helmed, “Jacknife” betrays its theatrical origins. But it’s the superb acting of the central trio that makes it worth watching the movie.