Jacob’s Ladder (1990)–R
Directed by: Adrian Lyne
Starring: Tim Robbins, Danny Aiello
I’ve often said that “Jacob’s Ladder” is by far one of the most frightening psychological thrillers out there. Adrian Lyne is one of those directors who unfortunately seemed to have been typecasted as solely an “erotic thriller” filmmaker, being known mainly for his successes–“Fatal Attraction,” “Unfaithful” and “Nine ½ Weeks.” “Ladder” proves that Lyne is not only a misrepresented master but also extremely underrated.
“Ladder” is a film that treads many different waters. At its surface the film deals with the Vietnam War, the use of hallucinatory drugs during combat and the post-traumatic stress disorders that followed. On the other hand the film examines the human psyche, more specifically, how the mind can play unforgiving tricks on you during harsh times. Finally the film is an allegory about accepting a fate and moving on with your life. To say any more would defeat the film’s purpose and magnificent twist.
“Ladder” tells the story of Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins, in by far one of his best and underappreciated performances), a Vietnam vet who wakes up on a New York subway one night and enters a world on the fringe of reality and dreams. At first his visions warrant a double take–people with weird horns and tails, train cars with eerie ghost like passengers and literal demon like creatures begin to haunt his every move. While Singer cannot explain his the frightening apparitions, he likens the torment of his life to that of living in hell and begins to wonder if his experiences in the jungle is the cause.
As Singer shifts in and out of his supposedly haunted reality he begins to have strange and incomplete flashbacks from the war, specifically one night full of carnage and haziness. Singer seeks out fellow vets as well as his former service shrink but comes up short on answers and is on his own on his quest for answers.
“Ladder” is a film that takes a lot of patience and a keen eye for details. The answers and culmination of the story are presented but not spoon-fed. Some viewers may find this style and the film’s editing to be confusing but on second viewings the film as a whole is quite rewarding.
Robbins is one of those actors who, personally, I can take or leave. He shined in early films like “The Player” and “The Shawshank Redemption” but lately hasn’t blown me away, even despite his unwarranted Oscar for “Mystic River.” In “Ladder” Robbins not only nails the role of Singer but also gives the character a level of shear innocence and frustration with life that makes it a standout performance.
Other supporting roles equally compliment Robbins. The great Danny Aiello (“Do the Right Thing”) shines as Singer’s chiropractor and personal guardian angel type friend. The highly underappreciated actor has that kind of soft-spoken wisdom to him that benefits the film and helps the flow of the often-chaotic nature of the film.
It’s hard to sum up in words why “Jacob’s Ladder” is not only a successful thriller but also a very sophisticated and smart look at a person struggling with fate and his beliefs. As the end credits roll and the soft and eerie piano soundtrack starts up again, all the pieces of the puzzle come together and we are left with a lot to ponder. And while the film may seem a bit dated at times it has survived the tides of time and holds its own to any Shyamalan type thriller out there. Always a sign of a classic film.