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Happy Halloween: Jacob's Ladder (1990) review

Updated on March 22, 2014

Director: Adrian Lyne

Cast:Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Matt Craven, Macaulay Culkin, Ving Rhames, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Danny Aiello, Jason Alexander, Eriq La Salle, Patricia Kalember

I had a very difficult time watching Jacob's Ladder. It tells the story of a man who witnessed unspeakable horrors as a soldier in Vietnam, only to return home to a surreal and unending nightmare. Director Adrian Lyne brings that nightmare to such vivid and horrifying life that we don't watch it so much as we have it happen to us. We understand perfectly the fear Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) feels, because we feel it too. We're there with him every step of the way, even as he slowly slips into madness.

The movie open up in Vietnam, where a platoon of soldiers relax near a small village. Suddenly, a violent battle erupts. Some of the soldiers are shot and killed. Some of them collapse and convulse, as though suffering from a violent epileptic seizure. Jacob manages to escape into the jungles nearby, but is ambushed when an unseen assailant comes out of the bushes and stabs him in the stomach with a bayonet. From there, all hell breaks loose.

Even before Jacob went to Vietnam, his life was a tragic story. Once married with three sons, he separated from his wife when his youngest child Gabe (Macaulay Culkin) was killed in a terrible accident. Now, he lives in New York with his Latina girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), and they both work at the Post Office. He earned his doctoral degree, but decided not to use it once he returned home from the war.

The train conductor from hell! o_O
The train conductor from hell! o_O

Suddenly, strange things start to happen. Jacob gets locked in a deserted underground subway station and is nearly hit by a train. One car tries to run him down. He is followed by a mysterious figure (Matt Craven) and begins seeing demons everywhere he goes. He meets a woman who reads his palm and is distressed by what she reads. One night, he takes Jezzie dancing at a party, and sees her dancing with what was probably the devil in the flesh. Lyne's approach to the dance scene is disorientating and terrifying. It is said he attached the camera to Robbins, so that it moved only when he did, and he only shows us brief bits of the creature, including a wing, a tail, and...well, it'd be better for you to discover that last detail for yourself.

Jacob believes that something happened to him and his fellow comrades during the war, like maybe they were guinea pigs in a secret government experiment or something. He gathers the rest of his still living veterans (two of them were killed in separate car explosions), and convinces a lawyer (Jason Alexander) to represent them in their case. Soon, however, both the veterans and the lawyer back out, and Jacob is once again left on his own. Why did they back out? Did someone get to them? What really happened to Jacob and the others during the war?

Lyne occasionally inserts flashbacks of the war, and he almost always uses a jarring smash cut when he does, so that we, like Jacob, are caught completely off guard. We're kept in the dark for the most part about what really happened to Jacob, until the final scene comes, and we're made to re-evaluate everything that we've learned. Having seen the film more than once, I could see how all the pieces fell into place, from everything including the scene where Jacob is strapped to a gurney and rolled down the single most hellish hospital corridor known to man, to the particular moments when Lyne decided to insert the flashbacks.

One thing is for certain: it certainly doesn't cheat. In fact, the ending adds a universal and uplifting spiritual angle to the material, and one that is nicely summed up in a monologue spoken in the end by actor Danny Aiello, who plays Jacob's heavenly chiropractor. But to speak too much about the spiritual theme of Jacob's Ladder would be to ruin the film's ending. It certainly adds to the movie's success, but the reason why the movie works so well overall is because it fully immerses you into the mind of its damaged and haunted hero.

I think this was the very same guy who gave me a shot of anesthesia before I had a root canal done! o_O
I think this was the very same guy who gave me a shot of anesthesia before I had a root canal done! o_O

The movie moves from present day to flashbacks to hallucinations to dream sequences so frequently that we, like the main character, are unsure if half of what we're seeing is really happening. Done wrong, the approach can be irritating and manipulative, but Lyne and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who also wrote Ghost) structure the movie so ingeniously that it never once feels like a gimmick. This isn't a movie that simply toys with its audience. It's a character study, and one that paints a complete and three-dimensional portrait of a man falling apart.

It helps that the performance by Tim Robbins is a revelation. It's pretty demanding playing a character like this, but Robbins never hits a false note in the film. He literally becomes this tortured man, and watching him lose it is at times so harrowing and heartbreaking that you almost have to turn away. Danny Aiello brings a real gentility to the role of Jacob's chiropractor (save for the scene where Jacob is hospitalized for a slipped disc), and Culkin makes Gabe into a haunting figure. The only performance that comes up short is Peña's. She doesn't really add anything to the movie, and she plays a character who is so unlikable that you can't help but wonder if she's really a demon in disguise (that would explain one particularly frightening shot of her).

Beautifully photographed by Jeffrey L. Kimball and hauntingly scored by Maurice Jarre, Jacob's Ladder is as visually stunning as it is scary and emotionally wrenching. I think I read somewhere that the movie greatly inspired the Silent Hill Playstation games, and the similarities are certainly there. More than that, though, Jacob's Ladder is an engrossing character study, a scary horror thriller, and a spiritual journey that you won't soon forget.

Final Grade: *** ½
(out of ****)

What did you think of this movie? :)

Cast your vote for Jacob's Ladder (1990)


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