Jacob’s Ladder (1990): United States – directed by Adrian Lyne
Rated R by the MPAA – contains violence, language, nudity, sexual content, disturbing images
Jacob’s Ladder is a conventional story told in a pleasantly unconventional fashion, at least until the disappointing climax. There is so much to love in the film that it is painful to admit that the entire film almost falls apart with an overly plain ending.
The film opens in Vietnam; helicopters are floating across the horizon as a small squadron of men relaxes. Suddenly there is a surprise attack, and as the men turn to face the enemy they realize something else is wrong. Some of them start convulsing and going into shock. One man runs for the woods where he is promptly bayoneted.
Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) wakes up on a subway train. An old lady scowls at him and a homeless man sleeping on a bench suddenly sprouts a tentacle. Singer disembarks at the next station only to find that there is no one there and all exits are barred. Eventually he finds his way home to his girlfriend, Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña). He is comforted and soon feels better.
But these episodes do not stop. Faceless men and otherworldly beings chase and haunt him, and he feels like everyone has turned against him. He collapses at a party after more tentacles appear, and the doctor decides that his case is dangerous. Jacob is almost quite literally living a nightmare.
It would be a shame to describe more of the plot, as a great deal of Jacob’s reality-hopping comprises the most enjoyable moments of the film. There may, however, be some slight spoilers ahead. For the first hour and a bit Jacob is a tormented soul. His friends call him Professor; he has a PhD but works in the Post Office alongside Jezzie. His days in ‘Nam still haunt him, as does his past life. He left his wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalembar), some time after his youngest son, Gabe (Macaulay Culkin), died. It is clear that Jacob has some serious issues. Aside from being stalked by shades of hell, he has a difficult time recognizing the reality to which he belongs. There are a number of cuts that leave Jacob in a time of distress and present him alive and well in a new situation. A fascinating confusion of reality is created.
There is a particular scene that is more effective than most at throwing off the wrappings of Jacob’s reality. He wakes up to find himself in bed with Sarah, and confesses to dreaming of living with a co-worker from the Post Office. The husband and wife soon become more amorous, but Gabe interrupts. A touching scene ensues wherein Jacob opens up his more sensitive side with his children.
This sense of discord, of not understanding where Jacob actually is, creates a profound sense of mystery that is intoxicating. The mystery builds, but once the audience is aware of Jacob’s true reality the bubble slowly starts to deflate. Like in Shutter Island [review here] the film becomes less enjoyable as the mystery becomes more clear. Television shows like “Lost” work so well because there is a massive sense of mystery. David Lynch’s films, too, work because he understands that the mystery is what’s great, not the answer.
Some films have a great enough answer that they manage to get away with revealing the details. The reveal to The Usual Suspects is powerful enough to make the movie great. The problem with Jacob’s Ladder is that the first two thirds of the film are convoluted and mysterious, and then the answer turns out to be surprisingly mundane. An extended scene where everything is logically explained only furthers to deaden the greatness of the mystery. The answer is not sufficient enough to make the entire picture great.
This is a terrible shame, for some of the imagery used in Jacob’s Ladder is sublime. Taken from the paintings of Francis Bacon and other sources, director Adrian Lyne utilizes jittery shaking heads and faceless bad men to great effect. A terrifying sequence in a hospital is simultaneously macabre and unsettling. Part of the reason I love Lyne’s visuals is because of the debt the Silent Hill video games owe to Jacob’s Ladder. From the wheelchairs and the twitching, disembodied limbs to the confusion between alternate realities and the dehumanized demons, Silent Hill’s supreme terror was heavily inspire by Jacob’s Ladder.
This is why my disappointment with such a conventional ending is so profound. The film could have been a truly great examination of reality and torment, utilizing body horror and tentacles and uncertain mystery in a way few films not directed by David Cronenberg or David Lynch have managed to do. But Lyne appears to be a commercial director, eager to go the route most easily exploited at the box office. Nearly all of his films have been somewhat erotic in nature, while remaining decidedly box office friendly. Jacob’s Ladder is no exception, but the majority of the nudity is nonchalant and natural, almost like nudity in many European films where nipples are not a banned and evil part of the body. It is disappointing, however, that there is only one naked male backside to counter the amount of topless female nudity. It would have been more refreshing, and far less exploitative, if Lyne had the balls to show more of the naked male form.
Jacob’s Ladder is a good movie, adequately staged, effectively acted, and often quite creepy. It retreads some of the ground covered in more frightening horror films like Rosemary’s Baby, but it also laid the groundwork for the horror of Silent Hill and Resident Evil. A baby-faced Tim Robbins is believable as the unjustly treated Vietnam vet, and supporting performances from Danny Aiello, Jason Alexander, and Ving Rhames are suitable complements to Robbins’ performance.
But the way the story is laid out is too conventional and generic, too perfectly wrapped up to fit the confusion and chaos and mystery that the first section of the film creates. Some tightening could have helped, too, as the film runs nearly two hours and should have been slightly shorter. Jacob’s Ladder has major problems that prevent it from being the fantastic, terrifying cult horror film that it might have been, but what it does offer is still worth checking out.