Judge Clark Douglas is climbing Jacob's ladder and sliding down Esau's chute.
The most frightening thing about Jacob's nightmare is that he isn't dreaming.
I traditionally begin each review with a plot description, but that's a bit difficult to do with a film like Jacob's Ladder. It's not because the film lacks a plot, but rather because we can't be certain of where or when the actual plot is unfolding. The film more or less unfolds at three different points in the protagonist's life, but there's no telling which one is actually the present.
The protagonist is a man named Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins, The Shawshank Redemption), whom we first meet on a battlefield in Vietnam. Singer is involved in a rather intense conflict, and suddenly he finds a bayonet being jabbed into his stomach. There is the possibility that the present is on this battlefield in Vietnam and that everything else is a flash-forward of what Singer's life would have been had he survived.
Next we find Jacob in a considerably happier place, where he is married to a woman named Sarah (Patricia Kalember, A Far Off Place) and has a young son named Gabe (Macauley Culkin, Home Alone). There is the possibility that this pleasant domestic life is the present and that Jacob is experiencing both flashbacks and flash-forwards.
Finally, we meet a version of Jacob even further down the road, as he's attempting to recover from tough situations. His wife divorced him and his son was killed in an accident. He has a loving girlfriend named Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena, Blue Steel) who's growing very concerned about Jacob's erratic behavior. There is the possibility that this is the present and that everything else is a flashback.
In all three of these timelines (particularly the last one), Jacob experiences strange visions. He sees faceless figures chasing him down the street, witnesses ordinary folks transform into demons before his eyes and sees what he believes are glimpses of heaven and hell on earth. He finds himself waking up from what appeared to be a bad dream in all three timelines, sighing with relief or regret that what he just experienced wasn't real.
The film is an immensely absorbing experience, initially playing to our expectations and then unnervingly dismissing them. The film essentially introduces itself as a puzzle to be figured out, but the puzzle proves far more complex and disturbing than we initially assume. We may feel clever at first for seemingly figuring out the movie's game (which at first seems to be a variation on, "It's all a dream!") until we realize that the movie has considerably more subversive tricks up its sleeve. This is a film to be watched, re-watched, and contemplated at length, as it contains depths of meaning that surely can't be fully consumed in a single viewing.
Yes, the film does contain an ending that provides a reasonably satisfactory explanation to everything and there is some form of closure. But think about it for a minute: don't most of the scenes throughout the film's second hour contain a similar level of closure? Couldn't you pick any number of those scenes to serve as an "ending" that would provide a similarly satisfactory conclusion? It's one wrinkle of reality after another unfolding from scene to scene, and I don't think we can dismiss the idea that the reality offered by the film's conclusion wouldn't keep unfolding after the credits have concluded.
Jacob's Ladder is something of an anomaly in the career of director Adrian Lyne, whose resume is primarily made up of sexually-charged dramas (Fatal Attraction, 9 1/2 Weeks, Unfaithful). His films are hit-and-miss for me (I think his remake of Lolita is sorely underrated while I find Fatal Attraction grossly overrated), but Jacob's Ladder may well be the most impressive entry on his resume. It's a surprisingly subtle film that still has power despite some dated elements; a movie that knows how to show rather than tell. It's a very clever film that tries not to draw too much attention to its cleverness, and its lack of closure is all the more riveting due to the manner in which it claims to be telling us everything.
The weight of the film's success lies more on the shoulders of Lyne and writer Bruce Joel Rubin (who never wrote another film half as smart as this one), but the cast is solid across the board. Robbins captures Jacob's terror and vulnerability quite nicely, while a whole host of '90s cinematic players (Elizabeth Pena, Macauley Culkin, Danny Aiello, Ving Rhames, Jason Alexander) fill out the stellar supporting cast.
While I'm enthusiastic about the film itself, I can't help but feel a bit lukewarm towards the Blu-ray release. The 1080p/1.85:1, MPEG-4-encoded transfer is grimy, dirty and soft throughout, providing us with a rather shabby looking film that seems 20 years older than it actually is. While Lyne has leaned towards soft, dim imagery in general throughout his career, one can't help but feel that this could have looked a lot better. Audio is okay, particularly in terms of Maurice Jarre's understated score, but the big Vietnam sequences and some of the more hellish moments don't quite pack the punch they ought to. The extras are recycled from the DVD release: an audio commentary with Lyne, a 25-minute making-of featurette entitled "Building Jacob's Ladder" and some deleted scenes.
Jacob's Ladder is well worth checking out, though if you own the DVD the Blu-ray release doesn't offer much incentive to upgrade.
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