Strangely enough, the most obvious place to start with Adrian Lyne’s paranoid horror movie Jacob’s Ladder (1990) is with the ending. (Consider that your blanket spoiler warning.) Because for most of the moviegoing public, myself included, that infamous twist is the movie’s hook: “So it was all a dream!” But, as I was happy to discover when I watched it recently, there’s much more to that dream than just some icky hallucinations and mind-bending ambiguity. Those are present and accounted for, certainly, but the real delight of Jacob’s Ladder comes from seeing a daily routine infected with spurts of diabolical terror. It’s a very uneven, somewhat disjointed movie, to be sure, but it’s made extremely watchable through this scattered handful of wonderfully horrifying moments.
Jacob Singer, played by a scruffy-haired Tim Robbins, is a Vietnam vet and postal worker who’s dealing with some intense PTSD, as well as some back problems. He’s divorced from the mother of his children and is living with the loving, alluring Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña) in a New York City apartment. One day he falls asleep on the subway, has a nightmare about Vietnam, and when he wakes up, things don’t seem quite right. An old lady stares at him blankly when he asks if they passed his stop. A vaguely human thing is sprawled across two seats, its face covered and what looks like a charred penis wriggling between its legs. When he jumps off at the next stop, he can’t get above ground, and has to hop back across the tracks. Another train nearly mows him down; as it passes, a host of blurry phantoms leer down at him from the windows. Only after all this is he able to get back home for some steamy shower sex with Jezzie.
Taken by themselves, these few minutes could make a damn good short film. The subway scene is so creepily suggestive and so without context that it successfully drags the viewer into Jacob’s head. We’re now willing to buy into the figments of his imagination, because his hell is our hell. And his demons… well, they’re really fucking creepy. Lyne gives us quick flashes of the entities persecuting Jacob, but never enough to really get a visual handle on them. He doesn’t get the dignity of a personable, face-to-face attack; instead, they pop out from around corners and disappear before you can tell what, exactly, they are. You start wishing it were just some guy with a chainsaw, because Jacob’s enemies are so vague and ethereal that they could be anyone. Or no one.
The movie’s first act really fulfills the promise of those first few minutes, as Jacob sinks deeper and deeper into the film’s infernal vision of city life. In a way, it’s like a quieter, more subdued version of After Hours – one where Scorsese’s nighttime hysteria has been replaced by the painfully bright slog of mid-morning. Jacob’s persecution complex takes its toll on his job and his love life, and Jezzie’s rationalizations, blaming his fears on perfectly normal urban phenomena, just make everything worse. If this is normal, then what’s bad? Jacob goes to see his old doctor at the VA clinic, but a cranky receptionist can’t find his file. Then, in a truly disturbing moment that comes out of nowhere, her little cap falls off… revealing a little bony growth on her scalp! Eww!
But these freaky intrusions into Jacob’s boring everyday life can’t go on forever, alas, and we must start the slow, awkward transition into conspiracy theory/spiritual metaphor territory that dominates the film’s second half. You see, apparently Jacob’s old doctor died in a car explosion. This’ll have greater repercussions later, but first it’s time for a sexy, hallucination-filled party that ends with Jacob consumed by a life-threatening fever. In a strobe-lit dance floor sequence, we get indistinct visual intimations of seduction, metamorphosis, and demonic possession as Jacob watches Jezzie uneasily. Somewhere in their relationship is a juicy core of psychosexual anxiety that the movie doesn’t fully exploit. But we can’t worry about that now, because we’ve got some mindfucking to do.
And what a mindfuck! Inception has nothing to compare with the moment when Jacob wakes up next to his ex-wife and starts recounting the nightmare he just had… only for us to realize that he’s talking about the entire preceding movie. Has the future folded in on the past? Is each of his lives the other’s dream? Maybe. Maybe not. After saying good night to dead son Macaulay Culkin, though, Jacob wakes up and is back in his real real life (or maybe the real dream), being cared for by Jezzie. Got that? Good. Lyne moves between his realities with admirable versatility, but unlike, say, a David Lynch (as in Mullholland Dr.) or Luis Buñuel (take Belle de Jour), he doesn’t really have anything to do with them. They’re just there, being confusing for its own sake. It’s still good, mindfucky fun, but it’s done in the services of the film’s sappiest, most hackneyed subplot, which is pretty disappointing.
Soon thereafter, Jacob gets a blast from the past: an old Vietnam buddy is experiencing similar symptoms! They meet for drinks, only for that buddy to also fall victim to a car bomb. At the funeral, Jacob chats with the surviving members of his old platoon, and it turns out they’re all suffering these hallucinations. So before you can say “They did something to us in there, man,” they’re off to the offices of Jason Alexander, attorney-at-law, to file suit against the U.S. government. This part of the movie is basically The Deer Hunter meets The Manchurian Candidate, and the filmmakers have no problem with just recycling every cinematic cliché about the Vietnam War, with no new insights of their own. Some government thugs drag Jacob into their car, but it’s way less powerful than the paranoia that consumes the film’s first half, because it’s so much more concrete and, frankly, obvious. The horror of Jacob’s Ladder gets derailed by its own back story.
This becomes even clearer during the last great hallucination sequence, which is a doozy. After jumping out of a moving vehicle and getting mugged by a Salvation Army Santa Claus (admittedly a nice touch), he’s brought to the hospital and, the doctors say, needs to be brought downstairs to be X-rayed. But to get to the X-ray room, we have to take a little detour through Crazyland, followed by a quick shortcut through WTF City. All the mutilated, glassy-eyed cast-offs of humanity are creeping beside – or even hovering above – the stretcher as Jacob’s pushed further along the worst hospital corridor of all time. Then it turns into a slaughterhouse, and the stretcher bumps into some bloody hunks of meat. Then Jacob’s in a fucked-up operating room and is politely informed, “This is your home. You’re dead,” before an eyeless doctor sticks a syringe right into his forehead.
Don’t get me wrong; this is a fantastically executed scene that plays out like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on amphetamines. It’s also a horrific illustration of a hospital patient’s lack of agency. But it also highlights the failings of the movie around it. It gives you the impression that Jacob’s Ladder is more a series of horror set-pieces loosely linked by some plot buzzwords (haunting past, war trauma) than the Chinese box dream narrative it would purport to be. In other words, it’s more Shutter Island than Inception. Jacob is delivered from evil by his chiropractor, an angelic Danny Aiello, who monologues a lot of peculiarly on-the-nose advice at him and sends him on his way. Then we get another revelatory monologue, this time from a one-time drug maker/dealer who was recruited by military brass during ‘Nam to concoct a formula that could heighten aggression. Apparently it was this miracle drug, “the Ladder,” that caused Jacob’s comrades to turn on each other, and that explains his flashbacks!
How can an explanation be so thorough, and yet so dissatisfying? Maybe it’s the gratingly self-righteous way the ex-hippie delivers it. Or maybe it’s in how Jacob’s Ladder insists so strongly that it’s a Vietnam movie that it tricks itself out of being a really good movie, especially since the overarching government conspiracy ends being a moot point. No, it turns out Jacob just went through all this so he could make his peace with dead son Macaulay Culkin and resign himself to his own imminent death. And then he dies! Still in Vietnam! Maybe if his dream hadn’t been so sprinkled with red herrings, then the twist ending could give us an interesting new perspective on the rest of the movie. But let’s not dwell on the many disappointments of Jacob’s Ladder. Instead, let’s dwell on the great, creepy moments! Like that growling voice that says, “DREAM ON!” Or when Jezzie’s pupils get all big and she howls at him! Or those distorted faces looking out the back of that car! Those were seriously creepy.