Grade: B+Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Director: Adrian Lyne

Stars: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peņa, Danny Aiello

Release Company: Tri-Star

MPAA Rating: R

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Adrian Lyne: Jacob's Ladder


Actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon in Press Room at Academy Awards
Actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon in Press Room at Academy Awards Premium Photographic Print
Towski, Mirek
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Eckhart saw hell too. He said: "The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you," he said. "They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and...and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.”

-Louis in Jacob's Ladder

I missed seeing Jacob's Ladder in theaters when it first came out, and
later began hearing several respected movie critics sing its praises. Then when one of my movie-reviewing friends strongly recommended it to me, I decided it was time to purchase the DVD. The cover made Jacob's Ladder sound even more intriguing, promising a "horrifying journey with a shocking ending that will haunt you forever."

Before that scares you away, let me assure you that that I was still waiting for the “shocking ending” after the end credits. Perhaps the ending will surprise if you only watch traditional plot-laden films that follow a linear fashion, but I think most people will discern very quickly where Jacob's Ladder is heading. Rudimentary biblical knowledge about Jacob visualizing a ladder to heaven cues you in to the eventual payoff.

Jacob's Ladder essentially equates to a visual interpretation of Christian mystic Meister Eckhart’s above quotation, and is partially repeated to make sure you understand its significance. Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) sees demonic flashes throughout
, like faster takes of Ridley Scott's Alien, meant to disorient the viewer and challenge us continually to figure out what we have just seen and whether it is real or a dream. Linear thinkers will find this extremely frustrating.

Reminiscent of The Sixth Sense on acid, Lyne's film takes a bumper car trip through the darker reaches of The Twilight Zone. There are some nice opening visuals and sounds of hueys in Vietnam, and we do realize that our protagonist must have undergone a horrific experience in the war. This will be revealed through visual flashbacks as the film proceeds through its inevitable course--inevitable because immediately we are thrust into a situation that just doesn't seem right. Jacob is a postal employee (substitute “messenger” here) riding on a virtually empty NYC subway train, save for one stone-faced woman and a homeless guy who seems to have a serpentine tail.

Singer gets off at an exit designed in hell (both underground entrances to the streets are locked and blocked, and he nearly gets run over by a train when he crosses the rat-infested tracks). This won't be the last time: cars and faceless demons pursue him, friends get blown up mysteriously, and a hospital gurney takes him on a gory trip through halls that look as if Freaks were being filmed on the set of Dawn of the Dead.

We also switch between scenes with Jacob's wife and mistress Jezzie (her name providing another blatant biblical clue). The only times Jacob gains peace and safety are the moments he spends with his chiropractor, Louis (Danny Aiello), often shown from a low-angle camera and bathed in a white backlight to highlight the angelic moniker Jacob uses for him.

OK, so the essential message and ending are not the big payoff the box promises. That doesn’t mean
it lacks value. Its spiritual message may give some comfort to people struggling with their own demons, and it contains some pleasure with its acting performances and visual artistry.

Tim Robbins stands as one of our finest actors, continuing to shine even if he appears in an inferior vehicle. Jacob's Ladder allows the boylike Robbins to go through a whole range of layered emotions, from fear to anxiety to contemplative happiness. With a less-likable actor we would give up after 20 minutes, but Robbins' charisma allows us to continue through his careening visions.

Also effectively creating a complex supporting character is Elizabeth Peña (Lone Star) as Jezzie. Peña is not given a lot to do, but she remains memorable. So does Danny Aiello in his most memorable role since Do the Right Thing. He delivers
the film's core spiritual message.

Director Adrian Lyne adopts much of the MTV-generation visual style that directors Oliver Stone and Darren Aronofsky seem so fond of, yet it doesn't seem as frenetic and empty. We get occasional lengthier sequences that allow us to experience Robbins' breakdown over his dead son (for example). Though other directors favor this fast cutting style to attempt communicating complexities (reducing the emotional content), Lyne reaches an acceptable balance here.

Some will find profound spiritual meaning in Jacob's Ladder, while others will struggle to figure out what they’ve seen. How you react will depend on your own experiences.

Some will absolutely hate Jacob's Ladder; others will love it. It depends on how willing you are to get on Lyne’s roller coaster, descend to Dante's Inferno, and ascend to something akin to What Dreams May Come. It's a worthwhile journey, expertly crafted.

It just didn’t blow me away.

It seems I’ve been there before, without the drugs.

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