Once in a while, a film comes along which very much goes far and above "entertainment" and into the realm of truly insightful and moving works. Jacob´s Ladder is one of those films. Coming seemingly out of nowhere in 1990, this film, directed by Adrian Lyne and based on a disturbing and sorrowful tale by Bruce Joel Ruben, gracefully managed to mix delicate human drama, haunting religious imagery, wartime conspiracy, and distressing psychological horror to create a masterpiece that has since gained an enormous cult following.
The story of the film is an enigma that lasts right up to the closing scenes, and as such is very difficult to review without spoiling it for newcomers. It revolves around an ex-Vietnam soldier, Jacob Singer (played in what is easily one of his finest roles by Tim Robbins) who, far from being one of the gung-ho rifle-jocks we usually see in such settings, was a mild-mannered philosophy student before the war began and had just completed his degree prior to his enlistment. This coupled with the death of his youngest son not long before he went to war, means Jacob was an uncharacteristically reticent and thoughtful man, but well-liked by his platoon. In the first few minutes of the film, we see those days in Nam, as he and his comrades take a rest in a village by the Mekong Delta, sitting around talking and idling over a joint. It´s worth noting here that the outstanding soundtrack by Maurice Jarre is instantly an integral part of this film, and sets an almost chilling atmosphere to this hazy opening scene with sentimental piano music. Very suddenly, the R&R of the group is interrupted by the mysterious onset of a "sickness" seemingly shared by all present....as the screenplay becomes increasingly erratic and confusing to follow, we see disturbing images of soldiers collapsing, convulsing, screaming at each other... and then the outbreak of gunfire. General chaos, completely out of the blue. As one large shell goes off, we quickly cut to a much older Jacob being startled out of sleep on a dark, empty New York subway train. And so begins his story.
With the events in Vietnam seemingly a distant memory, we now follow Jacob as suspicious events start to unfold for him in the present day. His life after the war has a pervasive air of mystery about every aspect of it; he now works as a lowly postman, attends a regular therapy group for post-war veterans, has separated with his wife and moved in with the sultry Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena) who does not seem his type, and his only friend seems to be his cheerful chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello). On top of this, Jacob has begun to see strange things around him. Things lurking in the shadows. He is convinced he is being followed. He keeps fainting. As things move on, Jacob starts to catch eerie glimpses of the people in his run-down neighbourhood as having horns and other shocking features. Before long, he starts to see those around him as demons. The film takes us on a horrific journey as Jacob´s entire awareness starts to spiral down, and he loses his grip on reality itself - as he loses consciousness one minute, he awakes back in Vietnam the next back in that fire fight, bayoneted by an unknown assailant, only to faint and awaken again in bed with his wife Sarah, until he falls asleep again and is back in his New York flat with Jezzie...it becomes clear that something incredibly brutal is happening to Jacob Singer, one way or another. Life itself becomes nothing but vivid torment. As he struggles for answers, he is led down one false avenue of trust after another, until utterly beaten in the end he must confront the sorry truth of what has happened to him.
Expertly shot and directed, with outstanding acting through and through, Jacob´s Ladder is a film which is pretty much unrivalled in it´s slow and mesmerising portrayal of a man whose life is slowly torn apart, flitting poetically between present day events and painful memories to create an impressively powerful and thought provoking work. What makes it so different from other films is that there are no cheap scares, filler scenes, or unconvincing points in this film, every scene is striking and reveals something new about the sprawling plot, which in the end results in something that is, most satisfactorily, more than the sum of its parts. This isn't driven by thrills or shock value - it is the sinister and subtle flow of the movie and its profound characterisation of Jacob that makes it what it is. The conclusion will leave many speechless. This isn´t one to be watched to pass the time or with a room full of noisy friends, and is at its most rewarding when you can immerse yourself totally in the sight and sound of Jacob´s experience....his "ladder". Easily one of my favourite films of all time, and unlikely to be dislodged from that place anytime soon.