Retro Review: Jacob’s Ladder.
It’s a new month and a new theme: Madness. Gearing up for Mad Max:Fury Road, we’ve decided to look at dementia in all of it’s guises. This week, we return to a cerebral and terrifying look at PTSD and survivor’s guilt starring Tim Robbins and Elizabeth Pena, who tragically passed away last year, in the excellent film version of Jacob’s Ladder.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Jacob Singer (Robbins) is an American soldier in Vietnam whose platoon comes under fire in the Mekong Delta of Saigon. His friends are ripped to shreds, and those that survive begin falling into convulsions and delirium. Jacob runs for his life, but is stopped by a bayonet from an unseen attacker. He falls to the ground wounded, and passes out.
Four years later, Jacob awakens in New York City, dressed as a Postal Carrier, clutching a book titled “The Stranger,” and lost underneath the city in the subway lines. After nearly being killed by a train, he makes his way back to his life: he is a solitary employee of the US Postal Service, has few close friends, and is haunted by visions of both his time in Vietnam and the untimely death of his young son, Gabriel (a very young Macauly Cullkin.) He reaches out to his surviving veteran friends, his erstwhile lover (Pena,) to a lawyer (Jason Alexander) helping G.I.’s get help for medical bills, and to the medical community as his visions become more chaotic and perverse. As he attempts to unravel what really happened to him all of those years ago in Saigon, his reality is ripped apart, and he begins to question his role in the war, the nature of life as a civilian, and his very sanity.
A Vision of Hell
The visual aspects of Jacob’s Ladder are arresting. If David Lynch and Guillermo Del Torro dropped peyote and watched horror movies all night, their output would not be as viscerally terrifying as director Adrian Lyne’s (whose other works include Fatal Attraction, Ghost, Indecent Proposal, and 9 1/2 Weeks.) Overlaid with cultural allusions, horror film archetypes, and Biblical references (the alternate title of the film is Dante’s Inferno, and this film takes Alighieri’s vision of hell very literally…) this film is extremely busy, both visually and mentally.
Have it Your Way
One of the joys of Jacob’s Ladder is that there is no correct lens through which to view the film. There are theories, counter-theories, conspiracy theories, and long-shot theories that all seek to interpret the visual data. We are given whispered hints of so many different angles that could plausibly describe the action (he’s crazy, we’re crazy, it’s a conspiracy, it all really happened, God is fucking with him) and Adrian Lyne manages to keep all of the balls in the air simultaneously. The final scene feels like a revelation, but does not silence all of the countervailing interpretations. It just gives finality to the tale; it doesn’t completely clarify it.
Jacob’s Ladder is one of those rare movies that begs you to watch it again the second it is over. The more you know about the story, the more questions you have, and the more you want to explore the artistically dense creation for hints about what the true nature of Jacob’s ordeal may be. It treads respectfully, but critically, upon the nature of war (and especially the emotionally charged conflict in Vietnam) and upon the nature of mental illness, survivor’s guilt, services for the mentally afflicted and for veterans, and a myriad other topics. The film is just incredibly packed with content, has a great cast, and tempts you to brave the terror of Jacob’s visions one more time, to hopefully discover the true meaning behind Jacob’s Ladder.