Directed by Adrian Lyne, JACOB’S LADDER (1990) is a metaphysical horror film about a man, Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), whose existence seems to be fractured between several time frames, and perhaps different realities.
We know Jacob served in Vietnam, and we get fragmentary glimpses of he and his platoon members involved in a horrifically violent incident, but we’re not really clear who the attackers are, and who survived and who didn’t.
We know also that he’s a postal worker living in Brooklyn in the 70s with a woman named Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña), and this seems most likely to be the “present” of the narrative.
And yet we see this version of Jacob being tormented by images of a past marriage and the dead son he still yearns for. Amid the shifting layers of narrative, feelings of deep sadness and loss anchor the story.
Normal seeming-sequences give way to startling, surrealistic imagery:
- Jacob finds himself caught in a subway station with seemingly no exit.
- At a party, he glimpses Jezebel seemingly being ravaged by a monstrous apparition.
- Later, figures with demonic faces torture him in a nightmarish hospital.
Danny Aiello appear as a mysteriously sympathetic chiropractor who seems to be treating something deeper than Jacob’s spinal health.
The thing is, it’s hard to write too much about JACOB’S LADDER without giving the game away. To appreciate it, you’ll need a high tolerance for hallucinogenic imagery and a certain amount of patience with metaphysical mysteries that are not tied up in a neat bow.
JACOB’S LADDER is directed with tremendous sophistication and style by Lyne. It’s full of scenes that are both shocking and beautiful. And Robbins gives an appealing performance as an every man whose reality is spectacularly coming apart at the seams.
In JACOB’S LADDER’s otherworldly visions, both angelic and demonic, discerning horror fans will find much to ponder and appreciate.
- JACOB’S LADDER is partly inspired by the film of OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE, which is based on a famous story by Ambrose Bierce.
- Roger Ebert wrote that JACOB’S LADDER “evokes a paranoid-schizophrenic state as effectively as any film I have ever seen.”
- A remake, not seen by this writer, was released in 2019 starring Michael Ealy.
“I see dead people.”