Monday, 3 September 2007
Jacob’s Ladder (1990) dir. Adrian Lyne
Starring: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello
“Jacob’s Ladder” is the story of Jacob Singer, a Vietnam vet trying to find answers to a series of frightful hallucinations and dreams he finds himself in. The film is manipulative, fractured and structured as a series of dreams, flashbacks, and alternate realities. Adrian Lyne’s direction and frightful situations he places Singer and us, the audience in, make for a wild ride. It’s a real mind fuck of a film and tough to place in a genre - part psychological thriller, part political paranoia, part horror, part war but in the end, ultimately, it’s a sad tragedy about the gentle mind of a man manipulated and destroyed.
We first meet Jacob Singer in Vietnam – smoking up with his Nam buddies, enjoying the camaraderie of soldiership. But when a sudden attack hits their camp something takes over their bodies. Jacob’s company start convulsing rapidly as a powerful unknown force strikes at their brains. We then cut to Singer waking up from this dream. He’s back home traveling on a New York subway train. Even when he’s not dreaming surreal people and events happen to him at random. Whether it’s a train of creepy demons that almost hits him in the subway, or an un-anaesthetized brain operation in a decrepit mental hospital, his life is a waking nightmare.
Singer’s wife is the lovely Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña). She’s a supportive and loving partner but when Singer’s surreal flashbacks and hallucinations move into his domestic life their marriage starts to crack. But Singer also had a previous life with another wife and three kids one of whom (played by Macauley Culkin) died tragically in a car accident. Singer frequently flashes back to Vietnam as well. All of these flashbacks seem so real to Singer we never know which is reality and which are hallucinations. With the help of his surviving Vietnam platoon-members Singer uncovers a government conspiracy about secret drug testing and psychological experimentation. But it isn’t until the very end do we really know what is going on in the head of Jacob Singer. It’s not a “Sixth Sense” twist shocker, but it does put the entire film into perspective and provides poignant closure.
“Jacob’s Ladder” could easily have been just an exercise in style. The film looks fantastic. Adrian Lyne perfects the mood and atmosphere from the outset. The subway scene is a tremendous sequence, capped off with the haunting image of a demon in a subway car watching Jacob as it speeds away in the distance. The house party dance sequence is also fantastic (see clip below). Lyne carefully and gradually turns the party from the ordinary to the surreal with hypnotic skill. Nothing actually makes sense in the film, which can be incredibly frustrating. And if it weren’t for the sympathetic performance of Tim Robbins the DVD player may have been shut off very quickly. But our need to see him escape from his nightmare propels us through all the dark territory we are put through. As well, Danny Aeillo plays the brief but important role of Jacob’s chiropractor and protective muse who brings balance to his life, as always, with the utmost believability.
The film was made in 1990 and it has that late 80’s, early 90’s look of the British commercial generation (which includes Tony Scott, Ridley Scott and Alan Parker) - long lenses, underlit interiors with strong backlighting, and the ever-present hazy smoke-filled rooms. The result compliments the dreamy haze of Singer’s life.
Adrian Lyne is an interesting director. He’s only made nine films in 30 years – and only six since 1983’s hit “Flashdance”. Yet each of his films have been successful in one way or another. He should be getting more work than he does. Maybe he’s picky, or enjoys taking his time with his projects. He hasn’t made a film since 2002’s “Unfaithful” and his next film is still unknown. His career is as mysterious and thought-provoking as his films. “Jacob’s Ladder” is one of his best. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Jacob's Ladder
Here’s the hypnotic party scene: