Jacob's Ladder May 17, 2021
1 Hr., 53 Mins.
artway through Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Adrian Lyne’s methodically disorienting psychological thriller, our protagonist, postal worker Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), meets up with Paul (Pruitt Taylor Vince), an old Army buddy, for drinks. Based on Paul’s frantic tone on the phone beforehand, this meet-up between these men, five years estranged (it’s 1975), isn’t going to make for a pleasant afternoon of catch-up. Almost
right as Jacob sits down, Paul cuts to the chase. “I’m going to Hell — that’s as straight as I can put it,” he says. “They’re coming after me.” This omniscient “they” — Paul can’t specify who they are — have apparently been “following” him everywhere; they’re so desperate to get their intangible claws on him that sometimes he sees them bursting through the walls. Most people would hear an old friend say all this and turn cold with worry. Jacob, in contrast, feels some relief. “I know what you’re talking about,” he confesses.
Jacob, too, has been plagued with strange, menacing visions over the last few months. When he’s nearly run over by a subway train early in the movie, all the passengers look like ghosts. During a hospital visit, he notices a bone sticking out of a receptionist’s head, like a unicorn’s horn. At a party, monstrous crows fly over the dancers; some guests appear to be violently vibrating; a pair of disembodied, snapping jaws float in the packed living room, intent on taking a chunk out of Jacob. Other weird happenings have been coming to the fore. When he tries to visit his doctor, Jacob is told that there isn’t anybody by that name at this hospital — and that there isn’t any record of Jacob ever being a patient. One evening, after what appears to be an extended hallucination, Jacob’s body temperature skyrockets to 106; when his live-in girlfriend, sensuous Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), intervenes by forcing him into an ice bath as they wait for a doctor, his body liquefies 50 pounds of ice. When he visits with a palm reader, she zeroes in on one line on his hand and says what no one wants to hear: “You’re already dead.”
Jacob doesn’t know what to make of what’s happening to him. He can’t be sure if this is purely an extension of his post-war PTSD — much of which stems from one particular battle where he and everyone in his platoon were unexpectedly hit with medical emergencies right as enemies opened fire — or if it’s something more tactile and sinister. Why is it that these maybe-hallucinations have only begun manifesting only recently? (That isn’t to say Jacob’s post-war anguish is abrupt: although he spent six years getting a Ph.D, he opted for post-office work because “after ‘nam, I didn’t want to think anymore.”) Once he links up with Paul, Jacob gives credence to the idea that they and their surviving platoon-mates — who later almost universally agree to be experiencing the same sorts of visions when asked — are at the heart of some kind of military conspiracy. The screenplay, by Bruce Joel Rubin, avoids clarity at all costs, though; you often feel like you’re in an underwater purgatory watching Jacob’s Ladder, doing somersaults against a current. In addition to the speculation over the locus of Jacob’s torment, we aren’t sure if his present with Jezzie is really his present, or if it’s a dream and his reality is actually with his ex-wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalembert), and their children.
Lyne is one of the best commercial directors of his generation; big hits like 1983’s Flashdance and 1987’s Fatal Attraction are entirely distinct from each other, but Lyne knew exactly how to dress up their storylines without smothering out his own sensual style. He has an uncanny ability to, as astutely pointed out by Janet Maslin, touch “the pulse of something vital in his audiences’ imagination"; I think this is because his images almost pulsate — everything feels a little more alive in his movies. In Jacob's Ladder, he once again knows how to treat the material visually. Much of it is shot in dizzying close-up and from low angles (Jacob happens to often be lying supine, and so the film resultantly likes to show the action from that awkward vantage point) that you tend to feel bearings-starved. Rubin methodically keeps the lines delineating hallucination and reality fuzzed out; Lyne, following suit, makes sure you viscerally can’t always trust what you’re seeing. Aside from its generally woozy look, the movie is also rife with flashbacks to the Vietnam War. Cutaways to them are usually abrupt; what is happening in those flashbacks isn’t explained to us until the end of the movie.
The characters have a flimsiness. Everyone in the ensemble is superficially good — particularly Danny Aiello as Jacob’s almost angelic chiropractor and apparently only friend — but they can only do so much with parts in a film that always seems to be gesturing toward something, that seems to use characters only symbolically. But even without too much characterological dimension, Rubin gets right the horror of feeling unfastened to your present, perhaps yearning for the person you used to be and the relationships you used to have with the people who remain by your side, unchanged. Paul tells Jacob during that fateful bar meet-up that although he carries around a Bible and a cross with him, neither helps — nothing ever really helps. And when Jezzie chalks up Jacob’s pain to pure craziness — she threatens to leave him regularly because she’s “had too many crazies in her life” — it stings, not least because her callousness isn’t unordinary. The famous ending — Jacob’s Ladder’s plot twist is what is best remembered about it — is over-literal and frail under scrutiny. It
doesn’t really work. It provides an easy explanation for Jacob’s agony fundamentally, but when you try to hold it up next to the film’s overall narrative it confounds. It feels like a cop-out in a horror movie that otherwise exceptionally conveys the nebulous, lonely nature of trauma. B+