Jacob’s Ladder (1990) dir. Adrian Lyne
Starring: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Matt Craven, Macauley Culkin
By Alan Bacchus
Before Shutter Island, there was Jacob’s Ladder, a comparable but much superior version of a man’s psychological troubles haunting him, causing him to see all sorts of demons, ghosts and other grotesque creatures. Whereas in Scorsese’s silly and contrived melodrama it was Leonardo Di Caprio’s long dead wife who plagues his mind, in Jacob’s Ladder it’s the Vietnam War which is on trial here.
Jacob Singer (Robbins) is 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” puts style and substance on equal ground. 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 simply magnificent set piece. Starting off with the Lady Marmalade pop anthem it’s an innocent dance party until James Brown kicks in, the strobe lights starts, people’s heads start convulsing wildly, then his girlfriend appears to be getting banged from behind by a demon with a tail.
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.
Jacob's Ladder is available on Blu-Ray from Maple Pictures in Canada