When it was first released, Jacob's Ladder was one of the most misunderstood, overcritized, and underappreciated films of 1990. The bane of its existence was that it was directed by Adrian Lyne, best known for slick, pop entertainment like Flashdance (1982), 9 1/2 Weeks (1986), and Fatal Attraction (1987). Many critics just couldn't seem to get over the fact that this splashy British director was trying to make a film with weight and gravity, and they railroaded the film for being (among other things) confusing, unoriginal, pretentious, and unsubtle.
Attacking Jacob's Ladder for not being subtle is perhaps the most misbegotten criticism of all, and the hallmark that the critics were going after Lyne instead of his film. Yes, Jacob's Ladder is unsubtle, but there is nothing subtle about its subject matter. The film is an ethereal journey, one man's fight to let go of the pain and agony of life in order to die in peace. The majority of the film takes place in the spiritual world reenvisioned as the concrete environment of New York City, where the soul of a dying man is lost and confused in the fleeting moments before death, his journey to the afterlife stretched out into a tormenting series of flashbacks, visions, and eternal questioning. To try to make such fiery subject matter subtle would be to strip it of all its power and impact.
The film opens in the sweaty jungles of Vietnam, where a platoon of soldiers is relaxing near a small village. Out of nowhere, a strange battle erupts, and the soldiers fumble about, suddenly faltering in an almost drug-like haze; combat in and of itself is horrific and confusing, but there is definitely something not right about this particular battle. In the heat of the fight, the main character, Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), is stabbed with a bayonet by an unseen assailant, and falls to the ground. This is where it all begins.
From there, the film dives headfirst into a narrative that might be real in the worldly sense, or it might be composed entirely in Jacob's mind. Several years apparently pass, and Jacob is now working in a New York post office, even though he holds a doctoral degree in philosophy. Having been divorced by his wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalember), Jacob is living with a co-worker, a sultry Latina (Elizabeth Pea) named Jezzie, which is short for Jezebel.
It doesn't take long to realize that all is not right in Jacob's world. He is haunted by visions of demons that stare at him from subway cars and invade parties with orgiastic intensity. His life is threatened by a careening car that seems intent on running him over, and when he meets with one of his fellow Vietnam veterans, his friend is killed in a mysterious explosion. Jacob begins to suspect that his recurring nightmares and daymares are the result of the Army's experimenting on his platoon with mind-altering substances. Or maybe he's just going crazy.
Like Dante's Inferno, Jacob's Ladder is a downward spiral; as the film goes on, the visions become more and more horrifying. When at first the demons are vaguely glimpsed or only hinted at, soon Jacob is enmeshed in hell on all sides. This is perfectly realized in a disturbing sequence where he is wheeled through a hospital while strapped to a gurney, unable to move. The feelings of claustrophobia and helplessness are intense, and each turn down a corridor becomes a deeper descent into a hellish netherworld, which is Felliniesque in is visions of deformity and human carnage.
Some have tried to explain the film as a series of hallucinations, an argument that seems logical at first, but is in fact a fallacy. A hallucination, by definition, is something that seems real but is not. The fact that much of the film might be transpiring inside Jacob's mind makes it no less real because, as he passes from life to death to the afterlife, his existence ceases to be worldly and becomes otherworldly. Therefore, the demons that plague Jacob are "real" because they exist in his otherworldly journey. He is truly a haunted soul.
Despite the often terrifying and unsettling visuals in Jacob's Ladder, the film is ultimately about coming to peace with one's life. This aspect of the death experience is symbolized in Louis (Danny Aiello), Jacob's chiropractor who is, in actuality, the guiding angel who helps Jacob comes to terms with his life and death. The substance, the underlying meaning of the film, is explained by Louis when he summarizes the philosophy of Meister Eckhart, a 13th-century German theologian: "The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won't let go of your life: your memories, your attachments. You burn them all away. They're not punishing you ... they're freeing your soul."
That is, in a nutshell, what transpires in Jacob's Ladder. The film shows how Jacob Singer burns away his memories and attachments so his soul can be freed. The film develops Jacob into a man of both the present and the past, and shows many fragments of his life in the form of old letters, photographs, and official papers--all of which must be burned away, literally in one scene. Flashbacks flesh out his life before he went to Vietnam--his relationship with his wife and three children, especially the youngest who died in an auto accident. He is appropriately named Gabriel, because it is he who finally leads Jacob into the light, an interesting and touching reversal of the traditional father/son relationship.
The script was penned by Bruce Joel Rubin, who seems to have a preoccupation with death. In addition to this film, he also wrote the screenplay for the hugely successful Ghost (1990) and the less successful My Life (1993), in which Michael Keaton coped with his inevitable death from a terminal disease. He also contributed to the screenplay for Deep Impact (1998), which is about nothing less than the possible extinction of all humankind.
The screenplay for Jacob's Ladder bounced around Hollywood for a number of years, gaining some notoriety as being unfeasible, before anyone was brave enough to take it on. And, far from being the wrong man to helm the film, Adrian Lyne may have been the film's saving grace because he literalized much of Rubin's more abstract and potentially unfilmable ideas. Lyne was absolutely correct in grounding this spiritual journey in the everyday world, thus allowing us to feel closer to the events. By taking the familiar and making it slightly discomforting or grotesque, Lyne achieves a sublime cinematic state where nothing can be trusted and almost everything is unexpected.
Another misguided criticism of the film is that it steals a particular twist from the infamous Ambrose Bierce short story "An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge"--the notion that the protagonist is actually dead all along. Although there is shallow surface similarity in the way Jacob's Ladder and Bierce's short story end, there is a world of difference between the two. Bierce was a black humorist, a sardonic wit who used the trick ending of his story as nothing more than that: a narrative trick to surprise his readers. Rubin, on the other hand, uses the same device as a means to relate his larger story of the spiritual journey. The ending of Jacob's Ladder has a similar jolting effect, but when viewed in hindsight, one realizes that it was a means to an end, which is quite the opposite of its function in Bierce's story, where it was simply the trick that the entire story labored to pull off.
This is not to say that the film doesn't have its problems. Some of it is a bit overcooked, especially the sequence in which Louis "rescues" Jacob from the hospital by ripping him out of bed and threatening the orderlies with a coat rack--the scene is both badly written and badly acted. The government conspiracy aspect of the film--characterized by Michael (Matt Craven), the hippie chemist who developed "The Ladder," the mind-altering drug that caused all the turmoil on the battlefield--is almost too intriguing; it feels like it should be the entire plot of another film that isn't dealing with spiritual matters.
Nevertheless, Jacob's Ladder is a moving, unsettling, and ultimately unforgettable cinematic experience. It is not as unique as it once was, as the coming of the millennium has inspired a boatload of spiritual films about angels and the afterlife. Still, "Jacob's Ladder" is the kind of the film that must be watched numerous times to get even an inkling of all it holds. Its multiple layers of meaning, jagged narrative structure, and purposeful inconsistencies work together to create a deeply felt, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately rewarding experience for those who wish to invest the time and energy it requires.
Copyright 1998 James Kendrick
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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