Classic Review: Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Jacob’s Ladder is a high dive into the fractured mind of Jacob Singer; a divorced Vietnam War veteran who carries the mental scars of war and the loss of his youngest child with him. The film opens with his battalion under attack from an unseen enemy. Panic, unease and chaos usually accompany war scenes as they do here, but in this case we understand something unusual is happening though it is unclear what. In the aftermath of these disturbing events, Jacob is taunted by what he can only describe as demons, hellish beings. Some of them are without faces; sometimes they pull him out of reality, bring him close to death and lay bare his issues. He lives a troubling ‘half life’, and struggles to cope with the demons that haunt him. He has a doctorate but works in a post office, parties with his inscrutable girlfriend, and often visits an angelic chiropractor for his overbearing back pain, a chiropractor that has the unusual gift of granting Jacob mental clarity in moments of madness.

The film spends most of its time disorienting the viewer, allowing us to ponder the reality of these horrible situations before pulling the rug out from beneath our feet once more. Singer’s reality constantly shifts and we are pulled viciously from events we thought real, only making Jacob’s plight more resonant yet cruel. Films like Jacob’s Ladder can often be meandering and murky in unsatisfying ways, as we know we are usually being led by red herrings. However Jacob’s Ladder is crafted with such skill that it remains engaging throughout multiple viewings. Yes there are events and ideas that are built up, potential answers to Jacob’s plight, only to have them reduced to more questions or dead ends within minutes but these moments only serve to make the film more enigmatic.

We don’t really know what the surreal monstrosities are capable of. Can they physically harm Singer? Is Singer suffering from PTSD? Has the US Government wronged him somehow? There are political leanings in the film though they do not explain the picture as a whole. We are never privy to the reality of the situation; instead we swim in the same dilapidated pool of horrors as Jacob.

The films greatest strength is in how it showcases the genuine horror on display. The atmosphere is thick; an early scene in a subway shows endless tunnels and platforms. Jacob finds himself trapped, exits blocked by gates and chain-link. The few people in the derelict carriages (a sleeping homeless man who doesn’t seem quite human and an old lady who stares blankly at him when he speaks to her) only serve to make his isolation more apparent. Advertisements along the carriage walls mirror the surreal scene and it feels as if there is no surface, only endless damp, dark tunnels. This scene and the whole film was inspired by a dream the writer Bruce Joel Rubin had about being trapped in a subway.

In a later scene, Jakes girlfriend is talking to him while preparing her lunch. She tries to coax him into going outside to clear his mind. There is an agitated presence, her face cut by the camera, split and shrouded by the angled mirror in their apartment. The moment culminates in a satisfying and subtle scare that brings to light the paranoia and fear Jacob is feeling.

The monsters and their surroundings caused me physical unease; it’s no wondering the directors of the original Silent Hill games site the film as an influence. The creatures twitch and shake their heads ferociously as their bodies remain eerily still. Some of them are disfigured and some don’t have any human qualities at all. Some seem even more tortured than Jake, especially in the hospital scene that is guaranteed to linger in your mind days after watching.

The score composed by Maurice Jarre (who also composed Lawrence of Arabia) rivals the Twin Peaks soundtrack in its more melancholic corners.

The performances embody the same detail of the film. One of Jacob’s friends during the war has harrowed shifting eyes, another played by Ving Rhames shakes convincingly when he realises he isn’t the only one experiencing the events. It only serves to make them feel more affecting. Tim Robbins gives his best performance here as Jacob Singer, one of the most empathetic performances in the movies. Scene after scene, his plight becomes ours and after one particularly jarring reality deciphering, I found myself attached to his character more than most others. Elizabeth Peña’s character is superbly foggy because she acts as both an anchor for the horrible trappings of Jacob’s mind but also deeply cares for him and doesn’t want to see him hurt. Danny Aiello offers up the only shimmers of light in this bleak film, as the chiropractor who seems to have all the answers. Macaulay Culkin even appears as Jakes lost son, distractingly so but he does a fine job. There are issues, moments of awkwardness persist throughout that are undesirable (like the ‘Please Mr. Postman’ scene) and some melodramatic sequences I feel would be better toned down, though these are few and far between.

Rubin’s script was unsuccessful in swaying publishers, though many studio heads and directors were impressed with it. Eventually, ten years after its conception, Jacob’s Ladder was released in theatres. It’s easy to see why it took so long; the biblical allusions to a place of purgatory and the Tibetan Book of the Dead make for a heavy viewing. This is an uncomfortable film that is equal parts sad and horrific. It’s no surprise studios didn’t want to make a film that would leave viewers confused and despaired. Jacob’s Ladder feels somewhat aimless on the surface. Many of the scenes have no direct relation to each other and even after multiple viewings, Jakes final revelation seems to come without warning or ending conflict. Many scenes were cut from the film because they made audiences too uncomfortable, the film was said to be exhausting but I can’t help but feel it stands somewhat incomplete and I’d assume these moments would add to the finale.

Jacob’s Ladder resides as one of the most engaging and under seen films of the 90s. It has flaws because it has ambition. It deserves to be seen because few films linger in the minds of their characters like it does.

4/5

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