Stephen Metcalfe adapted his stage play Strange Snow into the screenplay for Jacknife (1989) with David Jones directing. The film follows Megs (Robert De Niro) as he tries to reconnect with and help fellow Vietnam War veteran Dave (Ed Harris) while unintentionally falling in love with Dave’s schoolteacher sister Martha (Kathy Baker). Jacknife is very much an actor’s picture, driven by dialogue and performance. Metcalfe, in adapting his work, has clearly opened up his text to include more locations and to use setting as a means of exploring the characters more deeply.
David Jones is the perfect director for this kind of film, having made a specialty of filming plays. Jones is sensitive to the subtleties of his actors and uses the camera primarily as a sort of magnifying glass on the performances. This is coupled by a conscious effort to film on location and ground the film in a familiar milieu; a tactic that connects Jacknife explicitly with the hey day of New Hollywood filmmaking.
All of that said, it is still Robert De Niro’s picture. As the character of Megs De Niro gives one of his best, most fully realized performances of his legendary career. Everything that is ugly or beautiful about Megs is ever present to varying degrees as De Niro inhabits the character fully. Kathy Baker is almost as good as De Niro, turning the familiar part of the spinster sister into something with real depth that becomes totally unfamiliar and fresh in her hands. Ed Harris is also good, he simply cannot compete with powerhouses like Baker and De Niro.
Jacknife, even though it deals with issues such as PTSD and alcoholism, isn’t a film that is difficult to watch. The congruent journeys towards love and redemption are so marvelously executed that it is the beauty of the relationships between these characters that one leaves the movie with. This film is one of those under-appreciated little films that comes and goes from the public eye all too quickly.