Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Jacob's Ladder

Before The Sixth Sense, there was Jacob's Ladder (1990). It wasn't the first movie to end on the revelation its hero had been dead the whole time (that honor probably belongs to Carnival of Souls, although Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" predates that), but it remains regarded as one of the best of its sort, its influence felt in everything from movies like The Sixth Sense to video games like Silent Hill.

It's hard for me to formulate my thoughts on Jacob's Ladder. It is a mind-warp of an experience, jumping in and out of different timelines; blurring the line between fantasy, hallucination, and nightmares; and contemplating on such philosophical topics as life and death, grief, Heaven, and Hell. And it offers up no easy answers; watching the movie is not a comfortable experience. You will feel you've just had a bad acid trip, but it's undeniably effective as a surreal, paranoid thriller, a meeting in the Twilight Zone between Franz Kafka and David Lynch.

Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) had a bad experience in Vietnam. Something happened to himself and his unit, but he doesn't know what. At home, he has a doctorate but settles for works as a postman. Estranged from his wife Sarah (Patricia Kalember) after the death of their youngest son Gabe (Macaulay Culkin), he lives with co-worker Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena). Strange things begin happening. People seem to be following Jacob, his doctor dies in an explosion, and Jacob thinks he's seeing actual demons. Only his chiropractor Louis (Danny Aeillo) offers any solace or protection.

Jacob's Ladder jumps around between three distinct time periods: Jacob's time in Vietnam, his "present" day living arrangement with Jezzie, and another time in which he's still living with Sarah and Gabe still lives, though it's hard to say whether this time is before Gabe's death or whether another timeline in which that never happened. Sometimes there's just out-of-nowhere weirdness, like when Jacob steps off a subway train and catches a glimpse of what looks like a reptilian tail curled between the legs of a sleeping bum. Early on, a car suddenly chases Jacob down an alley and drives off, no explanation or introduction offered. If there's anything Jacob's Ladder excels at, it's keeping the viewer off balance. We can't tell what's real and what's not.

Director Adrian Lyne also films the movie in an off-kilter manner, so it's not only disorienting to follow, it's disorienting to watch. During a party thrown by Jezzie, Jacob grows increasingly frantic and afraid as it looks like a demon is dancing with her. The scene is shot mostly in the dark, lit only by flashing strobe lights, so we can't get a good look at what's happening. Shots become fragmented and jump around. Meanwhile, the angles on Jacob are slanted and off center, and we completely understand why he freaks out. Lyne also works in subtle imagery, like when a subway car passes Jacob, and all the passengers in the window look like they have no faces.

The most frightening sequence occurs after Jacob is taken to the hospital. Strapped down in a gurney, he is wheeled from what initially appears to be a normal medical facility, but as he passes through doors and barriers, the corridors grow increasingly dirty and disturbing: malformed people crawling around above the ceiling, piles of body parts, seriously freaked out patients blooding themselves against windows, and doctors with no eyes. When they get to the operating room, they hold Jacob in place with machinery that looks like torture equipment. Jacob's face is shown in close up and upside down, similar to how his life feels, as the doctors, including Jezzie, drill into his forehead.

There are also moments that are just plain sad, like when Jacob finds a picture of Gabe and cries. More than anything else, Jacob feels alone with hardly anyone to turn to for help, and over the course of the movie, he is betrayed by others, including Jezzie and his Army buddies. Only Louis stands by him; at one point, Jacob says he looks like an angel. It is Louis who offers an explanation of Hell, citing philosopher Meister Eckhart:

"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. They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying 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." That's about as accurate of a description of the movie you're going to get.

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