Jacob’s ladder (1990) is directed by Adrian Lyne (Flashdance, Fatal Attraction and Lolita) and is regarded as one of most inspiring films to mark the last thirty years of horror cinema.
Coming out at the same time of Stephen King’s Misery – God bless you, Bob Reiner – this movie did not quite hit the box office, but it grows up in fame in the next years, somewhat inspiring recent horror flicks as Silent Hill and The Ward and becoming a cult for ‘the true horror fans’.
Jacob’s ladder stars Tim Robbins portraying Jacob Singer, a Vietnam veteran who cannot quite deal with his after-war messed up life. And then… well, how can I carry on with the plot? That is the point. The film tells three different stories – Jacob in Vietnam, Jacob dating his former secretary Jezzie after the war, Jacob divorcing his wife Sarah after having lost their youngest son (Macaulay Culkin… Keeeeevin!).
The key of the movie though is that those three stories keep intertwining throughout the almost two-hour runtime, living the audience curious and a bit confused. Which is not a negative aspect per se – I personally tend to love weird psychological stuff – and it requires the audience to pay careful attention.
Okay, Jacob’ ladder was realised almost 27 years ago, so I think none will complain if I give the final twist away. If you have not checked this movie already, go watching it before reading the next part of the review.
Basically, Jacob dies at the beginning of the movie, when he got stabbed by another American soldier in the Vietnamese jungle. What happens next, literally everything, is just an elongated Jacob’s dream filled with memories, hopes, nightmares, uncertainties and so on and so forth. The movie ends with a very touching scene displaying the dead son walking Jacob to the top of a ladder – the protagonist fought his demons and he can climb the ladder and be peaceful for the eternity.
As I introduced the concept of nightmare and demon, it is clear that the horror element in this movie lies on these aspects. Is it scary? Not really. In my opinion, the first thirty minutes of the film as well as the infamous hospital scene are deeply unsettling and the absence of any kind of score makes the experience even more disturbing.
That said, the rest of the movie is mostly a well-directed, well-acted drama in which Tim Robbins shines among the other performances. However, Danny Aiello (The Godfather: Part II and Once Upon a Time in America) is worth mentioning for his mesmerising acting, which made his supportive role fundamental in the movie progression.
Another strong aspect of the movie is represented by the mystery, masterfully carried on throughout the entire runtime. About that, the careful utilisation of soundtrack – and especially its lack – draws the audience attention in a very mature way.
Nevertheless, Jacob’s ladder is a truly slow-paced experience that at times gets a bit boring. Furthermore, the acting is not always as good as Robbins’ and Aiello’s. For example, Jezzie – played by Elizabeth Peña – is such a bland character who makes the viewers wonder for how long she has to be on camera.
Arguably the biggest problem of this movie consists of not everything making sense at the end. Let me quote an example. The caption displayed on the screen towards the ending states:
‘It was reported that the hallucinogenic drug BZ was used in experiments
on soldiers during the Vietnam war. The Pentagon denied the story.’
Throughout the film – i.e. during the elongated dream sequence – Jacob is indeed investigating on the army, trying to figure out what they have done to him and his buddies. Since that occurs in his dream, is the final caption part of his subconscious imagination? Is it directed to the viewers as a reminder?
Either ways, it does not make sense. More than luckily, dreaming of a caption is virtually impossible. So that, the final writing is a warning addressed to the audience. This is the point: after the suspension of disbelief has been broken – by the revelation that Jacob dreamt everything until he eventually died in Vietnam – the viewers cannot anymore relate the caption to the moral of the movie, right because everything was just a kind of limbo hallucination.
In conclusion, Jacob’s ladder is a good movie with a very original idea at its core, filled with good performances and unsettling scenes, supplied by a good suspense vibe. For that reasons, if you like your brain to be shaken and if you are looking for something to overthink of, I strongly recommend you this movie. Nevertheless, it is not a piece of art as many reviewers seem to consider it. And, above all, it is not very digestible for the mainstream modern horror audience. If you look for jump-scares, loud noises and cliché narration, stay away from Jacob’s ladder. Cheers.