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Retro-Spection: Jacob's Ladder

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This is the first of what I hope will be many reviews or look-backs on films from days gone by. I’m calling it Retro-Spection for now, but that is a working a title and it’ll change should I come up with something that has a better ring to it.

The idea for this column is to revisit films from way back. It might seem redundant but I think it’s the same as rewatching an old familiar favourite. Added to that, tastes in style, aesthetics and the overall evolution of culture means that going back to a film from an earlier time can give it a renewed freshness.

The first film I’ll be revisiting isn’t really that old (though with enough time, I’m sure I’ll get a chance to look back at some real oldies.) It’s a film from 1990, which puts it at just over twenty years old. The film? Jacob’s Ladder.

I’ll be honest, Jacob’s Ladder is a film that I have been avoiding for many years now. I’m always inclined to avoid films that have a sense of the abstract or the overly arty about them (that Jacob’s Ladder is neither came as a welcome surprise).

It is enormously stylish, which isn’t surprising given that it directed by Adrian Lyne, who comes from the same school of Advertising Directors as Alan Parker, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott. If you’re looking for a comparison, then the best I can think of would be Alan Parker’s Angel Heart. Both films are noirish supernatural thrillers that are powerfully moody.

The plot concerns Jacob Singer, a Vietnam veteran, now working as a postman, whose world seems to grow increasingly bizarre with every passing day. He suffers from hallucinations, memories of his life before the war with his wife and his now dead son. Weirdness seems to intrude with increasing regularity into his life. He spots a man sleeping on train, a man with a tail that he tucks away just as Jacob spots it. He has to run for his life from a car seemingly hell-bent on killing him and as the car passes, a frighteningly inhuman face looks back at him. A party turns into a grotesque orgy of demonic proportions. And to top it off, he is tortured by flashbacks to an incident from the war involving him and his platoon.


When a friend of his, another Vietnam vet suffering similar hallucinations, is killed in a car explosion, Jacob becomes convinced that all this is connected to whatever it was that happened in the war and he goes in search of answers.

To be honest, it was the reputation of weirdness that put me off Jacob’s Ladder and kept me from seeing it. The weird is something that, in the hands of the wrong director, can result in a film that seems contrived, its strange tone going nowhere and resulting in something that ultimately feels empty and tiresome.

That isn’t the case with this film. It’s tone is built up to something that feels overpoweringly menacing at times and is used to serve the overall story. It’s also used as a way of putting us in the shoes of the main character, the sense of a world askew helping us to identify with Jacob’s plight. And even if the tone is one that becomes increasingly off-kilter, it never detracts from the film’s throughline to become annoyingly abstract.

It helps that Jacob is played by Tim Robbins and not some muscle bound, obviously heroic actor. Robbins gives the part a sense of the everyday, and the uncertainty with which he plays the role gives the whole film a sense of uncertainty.


But it isn’t only Robbins who is on good form here, and as a whole, the film benefits from a cast that includes Danny Aiello, Elizabeth Peña (as his girlfriend), Ving Rhames, a pre-Home Alone Macauley Culkin and a pre-Seinfeld Jason Alexander (who will always remain George Constanza to me, no matter what else he does).

The film also has a look which adds to the overall sense of unease. I’ve always been of the opinion that the films of the eighties and up to the mid-nineties are some of the best looking films of cinema (though this could just as easily be nostalgia on my part, as this is the era in which I grew up watching films and when I was at my most impressionable). I’m not sure if this is due to the type of film stock that was used, the lenses or the processes used on films (there have been advances in technology which have doubtless affected the way films look today). Jacob’s Ladder is a great example of that look.

The world looks lived in, with grime and dirt. Despite its reputation of weirdness, Lyne shoots everything to emphasize the everyday and mundane, albeit, in a very stylish manner, with a very strong feel of hyper realism. There’s always a sense that there is something odd skirting at the edges of things. The result is that when something truly bizarre does happen, the impact is stronger because the normal has been established beforehand.

If I can throw one criticism at Jacob’s Ladder, it is that the film really isn’t as smart or as profound as it seems to think it is. It’s supernatural noir, pure and simple, a pulp film and taken as that, it is great piece of entertainment. But it’s denouement seems to suggest that the filmmakers think they’re making something akin to Dante’s Divine Comedy (which the film is certainly referring to). That really isn’t the case and it shouldn’t be watched as such.

Rather take it for what it is: a stylish, moody, sometimes disturbing piece of dark fantasy. If you’ve seen Alan Parker’s Angel Heart and enjoyed it, or if you’re in the mood for something that will work its work way under your skin, then I really can’t recommend Jacob’s Ladder enough. It’s a great piece of pulp-ish entertainment, intriguing and bizarre, and a film that certainly deserves being given another look (if you’ve seen it already) or a chance (if you haven’t).

Last Updated: August 31, 2012

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