In 1990, Adrian Lyne made Jacob’s Ladder, a film based on a script that for years had been deemed as promising but very hard to bring to the big screen, one of the many unfinished Hollywood projects that no one was able to exploit properly. Unfortunately, despite an exceptional protagonist like the great Tim Robbins, the film bombed at the box office and over time it became a cult movie.
After watching it for the third time I feel ready to write something about it on the blog. Let me start from the plot, without revealing too much. The film opens on a group of US soldiers in Vietnam, on the Mekong Delta, in 1971. It’s a calm moment, the young soldiers joke with each other, and they all make fun of the character of Tim Robbins (called Jacob) for having a PhD in philosophy. Then, there’s an enemy attack and the scene becomes confusing, some soldiers are throwing up, perhaps chemical weapons are used, many die, lots of shots and explosions everywhere…
And Jacob is badly wounded in the stomach. Cut. Some time later, in the New York subway, Jacob (framed with a Dutch angle which already says a lot) is a postman, he wakes up from a nap in a very dirty wagon covered with anti-drug advertising, stops at an apparently abandoned station and, in order to get out of it, he seriously risks his life on the tracks when a strange train passes by with disturbing figures staring out of the windows.
It’s only the beginning of a story in which poor Jacob often finds himself struggling against death, once due to a very high fever, once for a hit-and-run, another time due to an explosion nearby. And here I stop with the plot and I inevitably enter spoiler territory because talking about this film without doing it is literally impossible. Yes, this is one of those films in which the ending is surprising, a bit like The Usual Suspects (1995) or The Game (1997). So please watch the movie if you haven’t done it yet and then come back here to read the rest of the review.
Done? Ok, then let’s proceed. Jacob is experiencing a nightmare, or a dream, in which he’s trying to make peace with his inner demons. And we actually see demons in his relationship with Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), when he meets his old comrades (the various Eriq La Salle, Ving Rhimes, Brian Tarantina…), and in his visits to the chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello). But are they demons or angels? Are they torturing him or taking some weight off him before his last trip?
Yes, because poor Jacob is still in Vietnam and is undergoing surgery, and he’s fighting for his life… In this struggle of his to survive, he lives moments of possible future lives: in one of those, he’s left by his wife Sarah (Patricia Kalember) and has a relationship with Jezzie. In a different life, he’s still with Sarah. In another one, his son Gabe (Macaulay Culkin) is dead, then he’s miraculously alive… Jacob goes from the most atrocious sufferings to the most happy moments on a journey probably meant to make him accept his destiny with serenity. Not that he wants to die at the end, far from it, but at least he manages to leave this world without a burden on his conscience.
And the film makes us understand that he had many weights: his son had died in an accident (perhaps if he had been with him it wouldn’t have happened), he hated the Vietnam war (after that, he became a postman in order to avoid thinking, despite his studies), he had doubts about his relationship with his wife (so much so that he imagines himself with another woman)… In short, Jacob’s Ladder is a journey into the human psyche that turns out to be infinitely complicated and absolutely non-linear. Jacob’s psyche, in particular, is full of biblical references with angels and demons, lustful devils and even more positive characters seeking the truth about what happened that terrible day in Vietnam.
And is it so important to discover that in the end everything we see except the battle (not surprisingly the only situation for which the director gives us some space-time coordinates) is only imagined? Does it take away from the denouncement of the horrors of war and the experimentation of chemical weapons done to the detriment of the soldiers? No, it doesn’t in the least. If anything, it reinforces the pacifist message because that fragmented psyche of Jacob could just be the result of those experiments made to make soldiers more aggressive.
And this is probably the reason why the film had so little success at its release: under Bush Sr., the United States was preparing for the invasion of Iraq, the First Gulf War, no one wanted a film so overwhelmingly pacifist and antimilitarist in which the protagonist is a philosopher, a soldier in spite of himself, who tries to denounce the government for its misdeeds!
To conclude, personally I would have preferred the film to end before the final scene with the doctors commenting on Jacob’s death. The image of him climbing the stairs with Gabe is so strong and moving, and it already explains everything that needs to be explained! But maybe Lyne didn’t want an open ending, he wanted to make things clear so as not to leave room for other interpretations of his film that went so much against the dominant thinking of he\is country in 1990. It’s a movie that gains from every successful viewing, and it’s also useful to understand that The Silence of the Lambs (1990) wasn’t the only horror film breaking with the tradition of Eighties’ horror in which the most successful movies of the genre came from sagas that by 1990 had switched from horror to comedy. Ciao!