“Ambivalence in human experience is no different than ambivalence in dying.” – writer Bruce Joel Rubin
Bizarre pull into the mind of someone who becomes disturbed by hallucinations. Jacob’s Ladder (1990) is a freaky psychological horror film that is visually one-of-a-kind, uncompromisingly an excursion into the metaphysical. Tim Robbins is a Vietnam Vet who has returned to civilian life as a postal carrier, previously divorced with one of his children fatally lost in an accident, now living with Hispanic hottie Elizabeth Pena for a girlfriend. Inexplicable events happen upon Jacob – trapped inside an underground subway, nearly run over by a car, body temperature shot up to 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Do some of these circumstances stem from after-effects of experimental drugs digested while on tour in Vietnam that has distorted his senses? Or are demons really after him? Director Adrian Lyne is justly famous for “Fatal Attraction” (1987), but “Jacob’s Ladder” with the motifs of whirring heads and faceless creatures, is his best film.
Lyne explores the thin line between life and death. His film looks at the everyday world and yet purports a mood that is just a little off from normal. The deliberate shambles and dilapidation of the production design is an effective choice. Perhaps David Fincher’s “Seven” (1995) also achieved the feeling of creating a somber cityscape that looks familiar, but isn’t particular of anywhere specific. That lack of everyday comfort provokes Jacob to go back and forth between memories of Vietnam and the present. He suddenly surmises a conspiracy theory that the government used experimental drugs on him and his platoon buddies when they were at war, further confirmed by a mysterious chemist (Matt Craven delivers a bravura monologue). But how much time has really passed since Vietnam and his present time as a postal carrier that this is just occurring to him now?
Jacob quickly loses trust in all his attachments. His girlfriend is more of a wish fulfillment than a logical mating selection, proper medical or psychiatric attention is elusive, his survivor friends from Vietnam equally paranoid. Scenes of “reality” carry with them a certain ambiguity. The film sticks with Jacob’s point of view, but that point of view too is unreliable. Jacob was functioning OK, but he arrives at the kind of condition where he might as well ask, “Am I dreaming?” Danny Aiello, as the trustworthy chiropractor Louis, is a little too perfect of a father figure and guru. Perfect in a way where you wonder if Louis is merely a conjecture.
Remarkably, there are a number of chilling, nightmarish sequences. To choose a favorite scene could likely differentiate from another’s opinion. I would say the bathtub sequence with ice cubes piling on top of his freezing, panicked body, has always been unforgettable to me. The scene of Jacob on a gurney through a hellish hospital filled with crazies and littered with limbs on the floor has a potent darkness. One scene that doesn’t work, are government goons manhandling Jacob in the car, which was probably left in the film for story “continuity” purposes – I feel rigid continuity is not something the film needed, however. The “Ladder” monologue by that mysterious chemist is much more unnerving. And the ending, which challenges you to consider how far the mind can really go when it comes to our ability to displace ourselves, is ultimately thought-provoking and satisfying.
Bruce Joel Rubin is the screenwriter, who penned the mega-hit “Ghost” with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze the same year as “Ladder.”
116 Minutes. Rated R.
PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR / MIND-BENDER / SATURDAY NIGHT WEIRDNESS
Film Cousins: “Angel Heart” (1987); “Lost Highway” (1997); “The Jacket” (2005); “Shutter Island” (2010).