Forgotten Gem: Jacob’s Ladder is a nightmare of riches

Jacob’s Ladder – 1990

Director Adrian Lyne
Screenplay Bruce Joel Rubin
Starring Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, Macaulay Culkin, Matt Craven, Jason Alexander, Patricia Kalember, Ving Rhames, Eriq LaSalle, Pruitt Taylor Vince, S. Epatha Merkerson, Kyle Gass, Lewis Black

Bruce Joel Rubin’s Jacob’s Ladder hovered in the ethos for nearly a decade before finally being made into a film. Given the complexity of the subject manner and the number of twists and turns involved, it really can’t be that big of a surprise. The story plays like a cracked mirror reflecting the live before, during and after the war experience of Jacob Singer (Robbins).

The film starts in 1971, outside of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Singer, a combat medic for the 1st Air Calvary is attacked along with the rest of his platoon. The group is attacked by something like a neurotoxin, while others are shot and Jacob himself is stabbed. He wakes up on a subway train in New York, 1975 on his way home from his job at the Post Office. He has a girlfriend named Jezebel (the astounding Peña) whom he left his wife and kids for after his youngest (Culkin) died. He’s got a bad back, among other ailments. His biggest problem, though, is the demons that seem intent on running him down.

His back, and his spirit are comforted by a specialist, Louie (Aiello). Their conversations are not the normal back and forth between a doctor and patient.

After the death of one of his platoon mates, Paul (Vince), he tries to assemble his fellow survivors into suing the government to figure out why they are all experiencing horrific visions. Singer thinks they were experimented on, but none of his group decide to follow him down the path.

Meanwhile, the visions continue…

Seeing this film after so many years makes me miss the acting of both Robbins and Peña. Both actors were in there prime in 1990, and would individually go on to make two of the best films (The Player, Lone Star) I have ever seen. Neither had been in anything significant for years by the time Peña passed in 2014. Lyne is an accomplished director. He’d had bigger box office than Jacob’s Ladder, but he never before or since approached the artistry of this film.

The images dart back and forth, with no real sense of place or time. The astoundingly talented cast is a collection of helpless individuals powerless to the forces that are creeping from all corners. Through each of these broken scenes we get a feeling of momentum spinning out of control until it is ground to a halt.

The horror elementis scattered as any of the images we experience throughout. Is this part of a nightmare, or based in reality. Do the nightmare and the reality merge? We get some answers, but are they real, or are they part of a dream? The best part of the film is when we don’t know for certain.

This type of film has not been attempted since it’s most directly inspired The Sixth Sense in 1999. The Bruce Willis movie used a much more straightforward approach and subsequently scored much higher gains at the box office. There is no question the debt Shyamalan’s film owes to Bruce Joel Rubin’s story. One owes it to themselves to view this film once more before the inevitable disappointment the remake will undoubtedly bring.

(**** out of *****)

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