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Article – “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990) Revisited…


Posted July 22, 2018 by

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“Jacob’s Ladder” (1990) Revisited…

The human mind is the most intricate structure in the known universe. Neither the brightest and most diligent doctors nor the bravest and most unfortunate patients have been quite able to dislocate the mystery from the complexity; to offer understanding to some of the more common mental ailments that human beings are loath to suffer.

It is an invisible illness that will creep up on a person and imprison them in a hell of psychological and existentialist torture. We struggle to identify from the fast pace of contemporary life the problems which surmount in our subconscious minds as our everyday detritus is thrown aside on the pile of our metaphysical beings.

Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is one such man with a lot on his mind. He can’t slow down and consider the direction his life is going in. He seems to be operating on multiple timelines.                                          Jacob is a soldier in the Vietnam war. One day his squadron comes under attack. In a flurry of bullets, dust and screaming, Jacob and his men, some of them convulsing and others left catatonic, are wiped out and soon he is fleeing through the dense bush. He is wounded by an unseen gunmen and quickly falls into unconsciousness.                   Later we see Jacob at home with his girlfriend, Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena). They work for the postal service. There is an impenetrable distance between them that not even the happiest sex life can remedy. We see this in the curt exchanges and impatient banter between them. But they persist.

Jacob’s Ladder Revisited

But something is wrong. Jacob is unsettled in the world, teetering between nervousness and confusion. He begins to see grotesque and horrifying demons, on the subway and in cars that inexplicably chase him down alleys and streets. In between these disquieting incidences Jacob remembers in hazy flashes being wounded in Vietnam. Soon he doesn’t know what is real and what is imaginary. Jezzie begins to lose patience with him, surely he’s overreacting. Later on, Jacob meets an old friend from the army. Paul (Pruitt Taylor Vince) also complains of experiencing disturbing hallucinations. Eventually many other soldiers from Jacob’s squadron appear into the frame with similar stories. Perhaps they were unlawfully experimented on by the government. Were they drugged in a crude attempt to exploit unknowing soldiers for the sake of scientific warfare? Jacob believes so and demands answer. With the encouragement of his former brothers he contacts a lawyer, Geary (Jason Alexander). First it appears that Jacob might have a case but bureaucracy intervenes when Geary learns that all the men were discharged on psychological grounds and didn’t even see combat in Vietnam. Jacob loses the support of the other veterans. Quickly it seems the government is on his back and Jacob has nowhere to hide.

Adrian Lyne directed the picture and is the author of the films true visionary uniqueness. Lyne was inspired to forego the oft-overused demon themes of cloves and horns and instead opted for a different interpretation; taking influence from the nightmarish triptychs of Francis Bacon and the freak photography of Diane Arbus. The original script which was penned by Bruce Joel Rubin explored themes resonant with the Old Testament and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but Lyne managed to wrestle the broader and more accessible tenets from those texts. We see the struggle between peace and morality, and the reconciliation of the past with the future. Lyne also chose to direct the picture with a cunning swiftness, underplaying the pictorial horror imagery. Sometimes we don’t know if we really have seen what we think is on screen. There are many frightening and unforgettable sequences in the film, many of which are owing to Lyne’s clever approach. You won’t forget the dancing scene where Jacob is horrified to see Jezzie gyrating with a slimy, winged creature. Also there is Jacob’s descent into the hell of his own unrelenting past where he is wheeled on a gurney through a bloody corridor of despair and sadness. Here we see one of the most thorough and perhaps accurate depictions of what the hellish underworld might look like; usually it is the residue from one’s own subconscious.

Jacobs Ladder

Another side to the story shows Jacob’s former life with his wife and children. It is apparent that Jacob has suffered a tragedy, one which he is yet to quantify in his mind. We learn he has a doctorate degree but how did he end up in Vietnam? And what happened to his wife and kids? Jacob continues to try and uncover the reality of his apparent unreality, consulting his chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello) who has some enlightening insight to offer, and also there is Michael (Matt Craven) who seems to appear at Jacob’s shoulder on numerous occasions. Later it is Michael who helps Jacob to understand his condition and his place on the ladder.

After the horror, misery and hallucinatory menace it is clear that Jacob’s Ladder is more than just a scary film that relies on sudden shocks and hackneyed tactics. Here is a movie which takes a man on a journey to the centre of his consciousness where many problems have yet to be resolved and which threaten the very essence of his soul. Any audience can adopt Jacob’s problems and examine how they would approach the mire that he has fallen into. After watching the film it remained in my mind for some time. I tried to make sense of the story’s resolution (which I will not reveal here) when I realised I was also making a similar mistake. We all live internally in an external world, but it is in the solace of our own minds that we lay the foundations on which our souls must rest. When each human life ends we often insist that the body rest in peace; and indeed we must be at peace with ourselves and the conflicts that have punctuated our lives. But what happens to the bruised soul yet to recover from the bumps of life? I think Jacob’s Ladder is a film that shows us the answer to that question.


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Written by:

Justin Aylward
Freelance Contributor

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