Sunday, January 08, 2006

Jacob's Ladder

Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is an American soldier serving in Vietnam in the late 60’s. He and his comrades are relaxing in a clearing in the bush when they suddenly begin to feel terribly ill, some of them vomiting and undergoing frightening convulsions. There’s a report of movement in the bush, gunfire erupts, mortar shells explode all around, and the soldiers respond with frenzied violence culminating in Singer being bayoneted in the stomach by an unseen enemy and later taken aboard a helicopter for medical evacuation.

In the next scene, Singer awakens from a nap on a deserted New York City subway car hurtling along the tracks. He doesn’t know if he’s passed his stop. He walks into the next car and asks a woman where they are. She just stares at him creepily. As the subway comes to a stop, he looks down and sees a disheveled figure lying across some seats by the exit, and there appears to be a squirming, snakelike creature protruding from his body. Singer hastily exits the subway car to find himself locked underground with no one else around. There appears to be an unlocked exit on the other side of the tracks, but as he makes his way across the tracks, he has to dodge a train that comes racing out of nowhere, and as the train flies away from him, he sees grotesque faces staring out at him from the windows.

Singer goes home to his girlfriend Jezebel (
Elizabeth Pena) and tries to carry on his life as usual. He’s an underachieving postal worker with a PhD living in a grimy New York apartment. But he’s plagued by more and more demon-like figures and frightening experiences and learns that others who served with him in Vietnam and were with him on that fateful day in the bush are having similar experiences and dying one-by-one in mysterious ways. He goes to sleep and wakes up to find himself in bed with his former wife (Patricia Kalember) in their old apartment, and one of his young sons (Macaulay Culkin), who was fatally injured by a car years ago, walks into the room complaining that he can’t sleep. Jacob tucks him into bed, bids goodnight to his other two children, and the next thing he knows, he’s back with Jezebel. He becomes increasingly disoriented and frightened by his nightmarish experiences and desperately seeks answers to what’s happening to him. A former Army chemist seems to have part of the answer, but his chiropractor friend Louis (Danny Aiello) may have a much bigger part of it when he quotes the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart: “The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won't let go of your life: your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away, but they're not punishing you, they're freeing your soul."

Jacob’s Ladder was released in 1990. Its director was Adrian Lyne, who adapted it from a screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin. A number of prominent reviewers panned the film as a pretentious exercise in heavy-handed symbolism and incoherent obscurity, but I don’t understand how they could have been addressing the same film I saw. I found Jacob’s Ladder to be a remarkable meditation on life and death and an extraordinarily compelling piece of filmmaking. If I had a top ten list of my all-time favorite films, Jacob’s Ladder would definitely be on it. I give it an exceedingly rare A+

If you see this film on DVD, I strongly recommend that you get the “Special Edition” version with a “Special Features” documentary on the making and meaning of the film. It features illuminating commentary by director Adrian Lyne and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin.

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