Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Directed by Adrian Lyne

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Jacob’s Ladder depicts a Vietnam veteran’s schizophrenia, to put it simply.  We live in Jacob’s (Tim Robbins) head and are privy to the nightmares he sees but which no one else believes.  His story will bounce around between reality, nightmare, and flashback so often that you forget which is which.

In one moment he wakes up in the middle of the night to tell his wife, Sarah, about the dream he just had.  That ‘dream’ was what we previously thought was the movie’s reality.  Later he will wake up yet again, face to face with his girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), who tells him he was muttering in his sleep about his wife Sarah.

We meet Jacob as a postal worked in 1970’s New York.  He lives with Jezzie, has a bad back and is slowly but surely struggling with certain nightmares that can be attributed to his service in the Vietnam War.

Sarah was his ex-wife, and together they had three boys, one of whom (Macaulay Culkin) died before Jacob went to war.  After the boy’s death, or maybe it was just after the war, Jacob and Sarah got divorced.  In meetings with his angel of a chiropractor, Louis (Danny Aiello), Jacob discusses how Sarah loathes him.

We are led to believe that Jacob’s life with Jezzie is reality.  That’s the starting point, and from there we jump into hallucinations involving Jacob’s old life, visions of demonic figures on the subway and flashbacks to his time in Vietnam when he was stabbed in the gut and nearly died.

As the story goes on, however, we find reason to question just about everyone in the story.  Certain things don’t add up or they at least overlap in ways that lead to ‘chicken or the egg’ mental debates.  Every new character development feels like a paradox.

The film is haunting but not outright scary in the ways many horror movies are.  What makes Jacob’s Ladder so devastating, as I found it to be, is the human side of the story.  There’s a basis for Jacob’s struggle, and it’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  I’ve had the good fortune to never live through something like PTSD or schizophrenia, but from what I gather, it’s not much different than what we see in this movie.

The main struggle, for Jacob, is to determine what’s real and what isn’t.  We see everything through his eyes, so when he says he was kidnapped, jumped out of a moving car and then robbed by Santa Clause, we kind of believe him.  It’s only the doctor’s furrowed brows that make us think, ‘oh yeah, that probably didn’t happen.’

The more sensational aspects of the story are easier to suspect, but then that same suspicion creeps down into smaller, less flashy elements of Jacob’s life.  It’s not long before you begin to question if Jezzie is real or not, the only person who has so far stayed by his side through all of this.

The most disturbing moment in the story is that sequence where Jacob “wakes up” twice. Within his life with Jezzie we’ve heard characters reference Sarah and his deceased son.  Then we see the for the first time, when Jacob awakens in the middle of the night explaining the nightmare which was the previous thirty or forty minutes of the film.

Our first thought is to doubt this, but Jacob is already so detached from reality that maybe this is real?  Then his interaction with Sarah, and subsequently with his son, is so damn heartwarming that I wanted it to be real.  When Jacob wakes up again, this time back in his life with Jezzie, it was pretty gut-wrenching, especially as he lies in a tub, looking wide-eyed at the ceiling with a tear rolling down his cheek while Jezzie says he was talking to his dead son in his sleep.

It’s not so much the question of what is real and what isn’t as much as what we want to be real.  For Jacob, having to reckon with multiple realities, multiple times of his life, would be debilitating.  How can you possibly move on when your mind keeps tricking you into thinking the past is the present?

So Jacob’s Ladder emphasizes the horror by reminding us of the human in the middle of it all.  There are so many disturbing horror movies that work on one level, the visceral one, but make you feel a little gross afterwards because the characters are never anything more than a series of vices there to be slaughtered.  There’s something disturbing about watching underdeveloped characters die untimely, bloody deaths, but it’s hard to stomach in the same way a paper cut is, or a hundred of them.

Jacob’s Ladder reaches further into you to make you uncomfortable.  It’s tragic in addition to being horrific, and the experience feels a lot more like a dense hour of therapy in which you learn a few unwelcome things about yourself than it does a few paper cuts.

Up Next: Camera Buff (1979), The Train (1964), Vegas Vacation (1997)

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