Viking Night: Jacob's Ladder
By Bruce Hall
July 30, 2013
Jacob’s Ladder is an enigmatic film filled with big, intimidating ideas, and small rewarding moments that manage to exist only long enough to be swept away by a river of darkness and pain. Bruce Joel Rubin's powerful screenplay is dominated by weighty Biblical themes, as well as the secular failings we all exhibit when confronted with the inevitability of our own demise. It comes across as an affirmation of life, delivered from a universally human point of view that deeply fears death, and the level of acceptance required to face it with dignity.
Typical of the era, this is an ambitious drama that draws its primary inspiration from the Vietnam War. It introduces us to infantryman Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) and his unit, taking a break from the grind of war along the fabulous Mekong Delta in 1971. A surprise attack wipes out half the platoon, while the other half find themselves paralyzed by violent spasms and mortal fear, as though they've been exposed to a nerve agent. They're under attack by something much more sinister than the Viet Cong, but before he can get his bearings, Jacob takes a bayonet to the gut and passes out.
We next see him four years later, on a subway train in New York, having fallen asleep on the way home from work. Like an afterimage, everything around him is vaguely reminiscent of what was obviously a flashback, and as he disembarks he finds his stop closed off. As he wanders the dark, muggy maze of tunnels he's almost struck by a train filled with ghoulish figures. The high point of both scenes - the jungle and the tunnels - is the way they're shot and edited so as to keep you unsettled and off balance. It's an effective and chilling start to a film that only gets weirder from here on out.
Director Adrian Lyne (9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction) does well by the source material, but veteran editor Tom Rolf (Taxi Driver, The Right Stuff) may be the real hero here. Moments of levity, solemnity and frenzy intertwine unpredictably much the way they do at pivotal times in life. When it kicks in, the self preservation instinct turns us all into animals and back again and by the time Jacob makes it home - if you've got a soul - you'll share his primal, hollowed out feeling. It's the same one we all get after a surprise brush with death, or when we sit through a seriously jacked up movie that wants to stick its fingers in your head and scramble your brains.
Waiting for Jacob is his live in lover Jezebel (Elizabeth Pena), who served as his warm, soft landing spot when his marriage disintegrated. Jezzie, as she's called, is a petty, impatient woman who barely tolerates Jacob’s fragile emotional states. He still mourns his estranged wife, as well as a son who died before the war. Like her Biblical namesake, Jezebel tends to lead her man in false, unproductive directions and she also does her best to control him with hot sex and hard partying. And it works, for a while. But Jacob pines for the meaning and stability his life once had and when his near death experiences and wild hallucinations start to pile up - and manifest themselves physically - he goes looking for answers.