Martha works as a schoolteacher and takes care of her Vietnam veteran brother. She functions as both his housewife and mother: cooking and cleaning, waking him from drunken stupors, fretting over his late-night bar crawls and morning drinking habits. Her alcoholic and unemployed brother David is psychologically disturbed by the death of his friend and fellow solider Bobby. Megs’ arrival functions as the catalyst to remove both from their passive states. Jacknife stages the siblings’ cyclical post-Vietnam existence and within the oppressive space of the childhood home.
Jones employs claustrophobic framings to emphasize the home’s suffocating power. Kitschy trinkets and antiques fill rooms enveloped in elaborately painted wallpapers of intricate florals, mountain landscapes, or 1960s psychedelic circles. These styles harshly juxtapose other patterns found on props such as couches or blankets. David and Martha live amongst their parents’ possessions and décor while attempting to fill the roles they’ve left behind. David romanticizes the site of his prewar innocence, “I love this place. Every good memory I have.” With their mother living in Florida and father long since passed away, it is too late for the siblings to both regain the gratification of prewar familial bonds.
David’s paternal relationship embodies both the irreversibility of time lost and the larger national ideals found in Vietnam representation. David learned of his father’s death immediately after arriving home on the plane from Vietnam. He had anticipated a vengeful reunion with his father. “It was my dad’s gung-ho vet shit that got me to enlist in the first place. I’d been fantasizing for months that the first thing I was gonna do when I got home was deck that son of a bitch. These veterans had experienced youthful ideas of male adulthood through the lives of their fathers; fathers invoked the ideal of manliness for their sons.” Vietnam shattered the innocent ideals of World War II patriotism instilled by his father and it was too late to confront him.
David attempts to recover the honor, integrity, and manhood that Vietnam combat was supposed to bestow on him by performing roles of masculine superiority and that construct Martha as both virginal housewife and daughter figure. However, he simultaneously maintains the oppositional desire to be cared for as a child by positioning Martha as his mother figure. Also, David’s desire for a stable household and the restitution of paternal authority is acted out in a scene where he visits Bobby’s parents and virtually begs them to let him do chores around their house.Whether it be his sister or the parents of his dead friend, David is looking for anyone to parent him.
The character of Megs unexpectedly arrives to coax David into joining him on a fishing trip. Martha is intrigued by this new visitor and proposes that she join them. “You’d think you’d enjoy a woman’s company for a change,” she tells David. This line indicates Jeffords’ theory of feminine exclusion. Veterans privilege the camaraderie of other veterans and forcibly extract a woman’s presence from their daily lives. “A woman we could use; a sister we don’t need,” David replies. We read this remark as David’s failure to construct Martha as a lover figure for his sister she cannot offer him sexual gratification. Martha disparages David’s choice in women, claiming that they are too simple to hold an engaging conversation. David replies, “If I wanted a point of view, I’d listen to the news.” This statement perpetuates Susan Jeffords’ discourse on the veterans’ appropriation of women’s bodies as “entrances to a place out of war.” David does not bother to engage with women beyond a sexual relationship because they cannot ‘understand’ the war, for ultimately it is a ‘man’s story.’
Megs offers Martha a beer but David speaks for her to say that she doesn’t drink. Martha defiantly takes the beer and asserts that she will join the fishing trip, signaling her newfound agency and future alliance with Megs. Martha’s agency violates David’s need to reconstitute a household of patriarchal order. David confronts this disruption after spotting Martha and Megs on a restaurant date. Martha returns home to a darkened room and turns on the light to reveal David sitting in the chair like an angry father waiting for his daughter who missed curfew. “Becoming quite the social butterfly, aren’t we, sis?” he says, vehemently opposing Martha’s newfound independent discovery of a world beyond the confines of their home and complex relationship.
Martha’s emerging sexual agency threatens David’s construction of her as both virginal mother figure and daughter. David continues to enact the role of protective father by lecturing that Megs is dangerous, crazy and has assault charges. David walks into Martha’s bedroom after their fight, pleading like a petulant and punished little boy, “Is it really so bad around here?” Martha indicates his failure to fulfill her sexual desires, “The things I want, you can’t give me.” David quietly asks if she is going to leave. She replies, “someday.” Martha threatens her agency just as her mother employed hers by moving to Florida. In this exchange, Martha establishes her ultimate goal to remove herself from these infantilized performances to become an independent woman in a romantic relationship away from the childhood home. Megs has sparked a change in her to take control of her life again. Jones reinforces Martha’s objective during one of the few scenes of her outside of Megs and David’s orbit. After teaching class, she observes students in the hall during a romantic embrace. Jones focuses on Martha’s reaction shot, indicating her discomfort that teenagers have pursued a relationship while she, an adult woman, has not.
In another scene, Martha rushes downstairs to proudly display her newly sewn dress. She announces that Megs is taking her to chaperone the school’s prom. David replies with a cruel and mocking laugh. He exhibits virile force by slamming the freezer door shut on Martha and screaming at her, performing once again as the protective father disciplining his daughter. He insists that Martha cancel the date. Martha threatens to leave “just like mama.” Jones frames this line on David’s facial reaction to signal the power and anxieties this event holds on him. After the argument, Martha sits on her bed and glances into her triptych mirror, indicating the variety of roles she playacts: the pretty prom date she longs to be and the roles of mother, daughter and wife she performs for David.
As this analysis indicates, the lack of parental guidance in Vietnam’s wake has left them both unstable. They are two adults playing a life-size game of house, pretending to be father and daughter or mother and son. But why does Martha willingly perform these roles? She does not want to disrupt David’s world any further for Vietnam has taken enough from him. Just as David felt bound by familial duty to enlist in the war, Martha is bound to her responsibility to take care of her brother. Jacknife reinforces Martha’s strong bond and tender feelings towards her brother. One scene depicts Martha lovingly glancing down at the sleeping David while she gently rubs her hand on his cheek. Martha later admits that she only stays for him and she worries every single night that David is out there killing himself. Jacknife therefore defines Martha’s loving devotion for her brother as the impetus for her gendered performance and static existence.