At The Jacket’s preview screening at the bfi’s National Film Theatre last week, John Maybury said he was proud to have created a film he thought would challenge American audiences. Having previously enjoyed success with his independent film Love Is The Devil, (1998), this time around Maybury secured the support of Warner Bros. Planning to lure ticket buyers in with an all-star cast, he presents them with a gothic thriller that will make them think – or at least shock them with an unhappy ending.

The Jacket follows the journey of a soldier who, on his return from the Gulf War, is accused, silenced and disposed of by the home he left to defend. He’s not a war hero – war scenes feature only briefly in the opening sequences – and rather than glory, this war-torn soldier is locked away, branded as mad and silenced by the people on his side. Maybury’s inclusion of an unlikely romantic subplot, however, lends ambiguity to an otherwise bleak story.

Starks is a man without a past, who we meet amidst a smattering of blood, sand and exploded body parts. It is 1991, Starks is a 27 year old Gulf War soldier and he’s about to get a bullet in the head that leaves him for dead. Except he doesn’t die. Suffering amnesia, he is discharged and returns to his native Vermont. When next we see him, he’s trudging along a motorway in search of a ride.

For those first few minutes there’s a glimmer of something hopeful. He has no family, no home and it’s bitterly cold, but it’s a clear, bright day and he’s still alive.

Moments later, he comes across Jean, a wasted woman slumped at the roadside next to her broken-down car, her young daughter Jackie looking on. Starks mends the car, but the slurred torrent of abuse Jean greets him with incites him to move on quickly.

The second stranger he meets along the motorway does give him a ride. Cue another black-out. When Starks next wakes he’s on trial, hands bloodied by a murder he didn’t commit. Unable to defend himself or fill in the blanks, he is found criminally insane and condemned to an asylum, where his world collapses into a torturous routine of psychiatric treatment under Dr Becker.

Maybury’s asylum – which he says is an accurate reflection of institutions he visited for research – has both a chilling soundscape and aesthetic. Shoved, poked and prodded through a series of dark cells and corridors, Starks’ isolation is intensified by the clanging, abrasive quality of his surroundings, his confinement epitomised by the suffocating jacket and morgue drawer. So fond of the extreme close up is Maybury – his reference to European silent cinema – that we not only see Starks’ eyes flicker in the darkness of the drawer, but hear them roll in their sockets as well.

Becker is a cold, sadistic figure who tests psychotropic concoctions on his patients. Having failed to correct a succession of criminals with past treatments, he callously ignores their protests and numbs everyone with medication – including himself. Under the influence of Becker’s psychotropic injections, Starks’ flashes into the past and future are conveyed through a series of scratchy sequences of flickering subliminal imagery, which – although, as Maybury admits, are a little clichéd – are still effectively disturbing.

Yet the future Starks escapes to appears a doomed repeat of 1992. Alone again on a frozen Christmas Eve, he encounters another suspicious, slurring alcoholic – although this time she can’t get rid of him. When it becomes apparent that she is Jackie, Jean’s daughter, Starks realises she has more to offer than a sofa to sleep on. As they are brought together by their own desperate circumstances – he has no-one and she has nothing to live for – they try to uncover the series of events leading to Starks’ death, and the relationship they form is central to the film’s glimmer of optimism.

Starks’ last visit to the drawer, a bullet to the head confirms his death is imminent. Closing his eyes for the final time, Starks’ last journey to the future reveals a perfect world – at least for the film’s heroine. If the response at the NFT preview screening is any indication, Maybury will succeed in dividing his audience as well as challenging them. As one audience member accused Starks of being a sell-out saviour, another said they had been on a roller-coaster ride of emotional confusion.

Maybury advised that the ending is not a happy one. Having intentionally chosen a political backdrop that mirrors the current Gulf conflict climate, it seems good soldiers don’t always win. Perhaps by showing them what might happen if they get a second chance, he hopes to scare the jacket-wielders of the world into listening to them.