The 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder asks the question, “Who is Jacob Singer?”
Is Jacob (played by Tim Robbins), a soldier serving in Vietnam who has just been severely wounded in an enemy attack and who is now barely clinging to life in a helicopter?
Is Jacob a withdrawn postal worker who lives in 1970s New York with his girlfriend, Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena), and who is haunted by horrifying visions of faceless, vibrating figures and viscous demons? This Jacob is haunted by ill-defined past incidents. Whenever he gets depressed, Jezzie is quick to demand that he snap out of it and that he stop thinking about anything other than the present day. This Jacob can only watch as all of his old friends either sink into paranoia or die. He hears rumors that they all may have been part of some sort of experiment involving LSD. He’s sure that he served in the army but when he attempts to hire an attorney, he’s informed that the army has no record of him ever having served in combat and that they say he was discharged for psychological reasons.
Or is Jacob the husband of Sarah (Patricia Kalember) and the father of Gabe (Macaulay Culkin — yes, that Culkin)? This is the Jacob who occasionally wakes up in bed with his wife and tells her that he’s been having the weirdest dream, one where he was living with “that crazy woman” from the post office, Jezebel?
Which one of these three realities is the truth for Jacob? At times, Jacob himself doesn’t even seem to be sure. Perhaps the one thing that you can be sure about in this movie is that whenever Jacob closes his eyes, he’s going to reopen them and discover that he’s in a different time and place. Jacob spends almost the entire film trying to work out what’s happening in the present, what’s happening in the past, and what’s just happening in his head.
And, to be honest, it all gets a bit pretentious at times. The film’s script has a lot on its mind. In fact, it might have a little bit too much going on. No sooner have you soaked in what the film has to say about denial and acceptance than you’re suddenly getting a crash course in MK-ULTRA and other mind-control conspiracy theories. Whenever Jacob isn’t seeing demons and faceless apparitions, he’s being kidnapped by government agents. There’s so much going on that this film can get a bit exhausting.
Fortunately, the film itself is such a triumph of style that it doesn’t matter that the script is a bit of a mess. Director Adrian Lyne does a great job bringing Jacob’s nightmarish world to life. Jacob seems to live in a world where the skies are permanently overcast and the streets are always wet after a recent storm. When Jacob makes the mistake of walking down a subway tunnel, Lyne frames it as if Jacob is literally following a tunnel into Hell. When a subway train rushes by Jacob, we catch disturbing glimpses of featureless faces facing the windows. When Jacob sees a demon at a party, Lynne films the moment so that, just like Jacob, it takes us a few minutes to realize what we’re seeing. And when Jacob is kidnapped and taken to a Hellish hospital, the scene is nightmarish in its intensity.
Tim Robbins gives a great performance as the emotionally withdrawn and haunted Jacob. (In fact, he’s so good that it makes it all the more sad that he really hasn’t had a decent role since he won an Oscar for 2003’s Mystic River.) He’s matched by Elizabeth Pena, who constantly keeps you wondering if Jezzie truly cares about Jacob or if she’s just another part of the conspiracy that seems to have taken over his life.
Jacob’s Ladder is an intensely effective, if somewhat messy, horror film. Apparently, like almost every other horror film released in the 20th century, it’s currently being remade, with the remake due to released on February 9th. Just in time for Valentine’s Day!