In the 1980s, Adrian Lyne rose to prominence by helming one bona-fide crowd pleaser (Flashdance), one controversially tawdry relationship drama (9 ½ Weeks), and one man-scaring bigamy thriller (Fatal Attraction)—a varied but stylistically grounded triptych, all three featuring strong, prominent female roles. Lyne’s 1990 experiential follow-up to Fatal Attraction, Jacob’s Ladder, might have exposed a bold new path for the director, marked by a deft stylistic form, Tom Rolf’s masterful editing, and a bold script by Ghost scribe Bruce Joel Rubin. But the filmmaker subsequently went on to direct three films that mirrored his 1980s touchstones, including two films about particularly twisted cases of adultery and a new take on Nabokov’s Lolita. Infidelity is certainly joked about and discussed in Jacob’s Ladder, but the thought of approaching the film as anything less than a genuine oddity in Lyne’s career would be foolish.
Only moderately successful at the U.S. box office, the film also serves as a bizarrely cohesive hybrid of war movie, character study, art film, and horror flick. Lyne begins and ends the film in a village in Vietnam where Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) and his platoon fall under a violent ambush; some of the soldiers convulse or go catatonic quite suddenly. Initially shaking off this wartime vision as a nightmare, Jacob awakes on a New York City subway train, sharing space with two particularly unsettling creatures; a quick pan from a promotional poster for the city to a religious ad that highlights “Hell” looks redundant. Now a postal service employee, Singer has been encountering an increasing amount of demonic images, a tendency that climaxes as he hallucinates that his girlfriend (Elizabeth Peña) copulates with Satan at a house party; as winks go, naming the girlfriend Jezebel calls attention from across the room.
Efforts to cure himself of these visions lead Singer to reconnect with members of his platoon, the most vocal members of which are played by Ving Rhames, Eriq La Salle, and the great Pruitt Taylor Vince, who are all also experiencing violent hallucinations. Meanwhile, between appointments with his saintly chiropractor (a very good Danny Aiello), Singer suffers through dreams involving his ex-wife and the son they lost (an uncredited Macaulay Culkin) to a hit-and-run. All these dreamscapes and disguised realities descend into strikingly vicious terrain, culminating in the revelation of a Manchurian Candidate-type program headed by an ex-hippie-cum-brilliant-chemist (Matt Craven) that dosed Singer’s platoon.
If you were to run down a list of forbearers to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, Jacob’s Ladder wouldn’t come up nearly as much as Last Year at Marienbad, if it came up at all. And yet Lyne’s startling experiment is, like Lynch’s most recent works, an ever-shifting phantasmagoria ultimately about dreams and films as dreams. Indeed, attempting to pull story strands together and climb out of the labyrinthine terrain Lyne and his commendable production team have constructed may prove frustrating, but it’s a struggle essential to the emotional power of the film. The very act of watching the film is so emotionally draining that the viewer leaves the film feeling worked-in; the thought of repeat viewings is daunting yet insatiable.
That the film’s ending renders the journey parenthetical rather than letting the viewer wade in doubt strikes me as the only reason Jacob’s Ladder enjoyed a wide release by Tri-Star Pictures. And despite the undeniable power of Lyne’s head trip, it doesn’t strike me as a great film: A pungent familiarity in numerous scenes, intentional or not, softens Lyne’s psychological blow, and there’s a shine of sentimentality in certain scenes that rings false. These elements are, however, minor in comparison to the overarching themes of death, spirituality, and grief that Lyne and Rubin are chiefly interested in, which, by the film’s end, have been resolved—a fact that will either irk or comfort the viewer immensely.
Nevertheless, Jacob’s Ladder proves to be Lyne’s best film by quite some measure, much of which is attributable to proven, what might even be called “old-school,” filmmaking techniques. All the demonic imagery is done with prosthetics—Lyne refused to use computer graphics—and much of the lugubrious tone can be pinned on the director and cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball’s use of location shooting in New York City. An early scene concerning Singer’s attempts to escape a subway platform could be seen as a reflection of the film in miniature, but so could a number of scenes that Lyne unfolds. What makes Jacob’s Ladder so endlessly fascinating, touching, and singular is that it piles on these elusive variations to invoke very real and pointed emotions, an act that we are often quick to take for granted.
Lionsgate’s 1080p transfer, presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, does good by Adrian Lyne’s vision of New York City, Vietnam, and dreamscapes by keeping the general murkiness inherent in the film but cleaning up nearly all print damage. Graininess is a given, and there’s a softness to the image that lends itself to the numerous hallucinations, but skin tones, black levels, detailing, and textural elements are all much better here than on the previous DVD release. Audio is similarly admirable though obviously nothing to show off. Atmosphere and dialogue are both clear in nearly every scene and crowded auditory scenes, as in a horrifying house party, play out very nicely.
The extras here succeed due to Lyne’s unwavering intelligence. On the audio commentary, the director discusses everything from location shooting to recurring themes to casting choices and working with screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin. It’s smart, never-exhaustive talk for people who love filmmaking. The making-of featurette highlights many of the same points in compact form (26 minutes) and calls attention to the great nuance of Tim Robbins’s performance. Most surprisingly is that the deleted scenes include would have been welcome in the final cut, especially one that shows Matt Craven’s character administering an antidote to Robbins’s Singer. The theatrical trailer is also included.
The nightmare visions of Jacob’s Ladder offer a rare cerebral experience from a director known mostly for movies about couples behaving badly.