Blu-ray Review: Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Now Available to Own

In order to delve into the increasingly feverish, hallucinatory psyche of former Vietnam veteran turned bookish U.S. postman Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne and Ghost screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin present us with several alternate realities.

Kicking off the work like a traditional male camaraderie 'Nam picture of lewd conversation during wartime before some unknown force takes over the personalities of the entire platoon, soon the filmmakers seemingly abandon that storyline by jumping into what we perceive is Singer's future living with a beautiful colleague (Elizabeth Pena).

However, the movie, which is as transient as Singer seems to be, throws us for a loop yet again by moving the troubled man from one “reality” to another one that finds Pena out of the picture and his beloved son (Macaulay Culkin) still alive.

While the religiously referential title does hint at the eventual main revelation and avid readers of Jorge Luis Borges may be able to take in the bigger picture earlier into the movie than Lyne and Rubin had intended, Jacob's Ladder plays best as a trippy work of fantastical borderline supernatural horror dressed up as a paranoid psychological thriller of the biblical variety.

Namely people shapeshift into other roles and other creatures and conspiracies build as the film continues in such a way that you may not wholly understand exactly what to believe from one moment to the next as Singer begins seeing demons and things he cannot explain cropping up into everyday life.

In fact, on a simple visceral level the work drove me into such a state that after seeing it for the first time as a teen, I recall needing to double check that every door in my home was indeed locked in order to attempt to get some sleep.

And to its credit, it still managed to disturb me on a more chillingly existential level this time around. However, once we're apprised of the true situation and can weed out what is real, imagined or somewhere in between, ultimately as a narrative work, Jacob's Ladder doesn't hold up after we have a moment to digest what we've just witnessed.

Thanks to the increasing popularity of major twists that became game changers for the screenwriting trade following the cult success of The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, Memento and more around the millennium, we became accustomed to final act head rushes so great that in the words of Leonard Maltin at times they managed to “negate the entire film.”

Needless to say, we've all seen way too many gimmicky rip-off movies since the dawn of Shyamalan including recent movies made by M. Night Shyamalan that just seem to bet everything on the strength of the final twist.

But if the films are creatively dazzling enough that they make you feel like the medium of film has just been reinvented or have something to say on another level, unlike Maltin's dismissal of some of the referenced movies, I think it's possible to look past the plot negation if something else is there.

Unfortunately for Jacob's Ladder but fortunately for the oeuvre of Borges, the eventual twist seems like it would've been far more thrilling as a work of literature.

Admittedly I'm deeply impressed by Lyne's ability to out Cronenberg filmmaker David Cronenberg with this film that aside from a perpetually topless Pena doesn't feel much like Lyne's other predominantly sexually preoccupied work.

Yet without giving us another solid character with whom we can empathize or see learn from the experience or take in the information being shared, frustratingly it just comes off like a pretentious stream-of-consciousness exercise wherein Rubin had a nightmare, picked up a pen and began writing.

And fittingly for a nightmare, the Blu-ray transfer remains dark and ominous but at times, Ladder comes off a bit too dark -- so much so that you have a tough time deciphering just what you're seeing out there in the street as you walk in Singer's shoes.

Likewise, still quite grainy and in need of superior restoration, despite the inclusion of previously released DVD bonus features including filmmaker commentary that might interest avid fans of the work, in the end, there's no major reason to drop the extra dough to climb this perfunctorily upgraded Ladder.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.