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Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

February 24th, 2008 · 7 Comments

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In the Mekong Delta, 6 October 1971, a unit of American soldiers including “Professor” Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) becomes violently nauseous moments before an attack by enemy forces. Jacob wakes up in the New York subway. He finds his exit has been chained shut, and he has to descend into the tunnel to cross to the other side of the platform. He’s almost run over by a train, which appears to be full of ghostlike figures as it races past him.

Jacob shares an apartment with the passionate Jezebel (Elizabeth Pena). He breaks down when he comes across a photo of his deceased son Gabe (Macaulay Culkin). Uncomfortable seeing him so upset, Jezzie throws his old photos in the incinerator. Jacob begins to experience disturbing things. He’s chased by a car filled with more faceless demons, glimpses what appear to be horns on the head of a nurse and has visions of Jezzie being enveloped by monstrous appendages on a dance floor.

A terrified army buddy (Pruitt Taylor Vince) tells Jacob “they’re coming after me.” After he meets with a suspicious death, the survivors of Jacob’s unit reveal similar visions. They hire a lawyer (Jason Alexander) to find out if the Army did something to them, but the case is quickly dropped without explanation. As Jacob’s visions intensify and his friends turn their back on him, his only saviors are his spiritually benign chiropractor (Danny Aiello) and a chemist (Matt Craven) who may know what happened in Vietnam.


Production history
Bruce Joel Rubin had attended NYU Film School in the late ‘60s and taken classes with Brian DePalma, but by 1980, he was married, living in Indiana and writing industrial films. Rubin had sold a script that would eventually be made into Brainstorm, but felt his chances of breaking into Hollywood were slim. DePalma implored him to move to L.A. Before he arrived, Rubin had written another script, this one called Jacob’s Ladder. When his wife had asked him what it was about, his response was, “I don’t know.”

Rubin’s script created such a buzz that by 1984, American Film magazine rated it one of the ten best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Unfortunately, no one wanted to make it. Meanwhile, director Adrian Lyne – coming off the box office sensation Fatal Attraction – was having trouble finding another script he liked. He asked an agent at ICM named Tracy Jacobson what she’d read in the last ten years that she really liked, but had yet to be made. She mentioned Jacob’s Ladder.

While Lyne was “bowled over” by the script, he understood why it hadn’t been produced. He spent a year working with Rubin turning “this huge, incredibly disruptive document” into a script that could be filmed. Much of the contention centered on the demons, which Rubin had envisioned as medieval creatures with horns and hooves. Lyne felt that would be too familiar to audiences. The paintings of Francis Bacon – whose demons were too blurry to get a good look at – ultimately gave Lyne the look he wanted.


With producers Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna picking up the tab, Lyne turned down an offer to direct Bonfire of the Vanities and chose Jacob’s Ladder as his next picture. He cast Tim Robbins – who had the sense of humor he felt the part needed – in the title role. Among the many actresses considered for Jezzie – including Madonna and Julia Roberts – Elizabeth Pena won the part. While the film inspired thoughtful debate from test audiences to critics and debuted at #1 at the box office in November 1990, it was quickly forgotten.

While Adrian Lyne remains best known for pumping out hot and bothered ‘80s fare like Flashdance and 9 ½ Weeks, and Bruce Joel Rubin found great commercial success ironing out his metaphysical ambiguities in the screenplay for Ghost, those movies play like See Spot Run in comparison to Jacob’s Ladder, a viscerally disturbing and intellectually challenging picture that remains the best work either craftsman has yet to produce.

Rubin’s script conjures nightmares that cut even deeper than those of good horror movies; the horrors of war, a city’s decaying streets and social structure, and family tragedy. Lyne tips his hand a bit too much toward allegory, but delivers on the bizarre visuals and establishes an atmosphere of oppressive dread. The cast (which includes Ving Rhames, Eriq La Salle and S. Epatha Merkerson) is peerless, while the film’s hypnotic quality throws the viewer off balance and keeps us guessing long after the end credits roll.


Greg Ferguson at The Erudite Film Critic writes, “Though it may come off as relentlessly chaotic and grim, the film has a pensive and spiritual upside. Lyne is a director interested in drawing audiences into his material, usually by asking us to consider our values pertaining to sexual responsibility and fidelity, but with Jacob’s Ladder he is daring us to confront our attachments and priorities and consider how the way we choose to live relates to our sense of peace and harmony. It is a work of bravery and great power.”

“I find it difficult to recommend Jacob’s Ladder to most. Not because it’s a badly made movie: in terms of imagination, directorial style, and storyline, it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. However, it also creates the most frighteningly powerful feelings of dread and despair that I’ve ever encountered from a film,” writes Chris Coleman at Appreciating Great Trash.

Danel Griffin at Film as Art writes, “The film is all at once haunting, moving, disturbing, nightmarish, surreal, disorienting, and terrifying. All of the actors are top notch, and it contains visuals that will never leave me. In retrospect, I do not believe that it ever really comes together as a coherent whole, and perhaps the final scenes are rushed and underdeveloped. But for the thought that Jacob’s Ladder provoked in me, and for the very brilliance of its images and ideas, the film emerges out of its shortcomings and climbs to greatness.”

“Every day Jacob Singer goes to work. And every day, he wonders what is happening to him.” View the original theatrical trailer for Jacob’s Ladder.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Bathtub scene · Beasts and monsters · Dreams and visions · Paranoia

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chuck // Feb 25, 2008 at 8:18 am

    I saw this picture when I was 11 years old. And haven’t seen it since. I need to revisit this one too, but I remember at the time being truly terrified by it, the notion of collapsable reality has always gotten to me anyway.

    Lyne has made some terrible films that have had a negative influence on the scene, but he is a director of ability. Fatal Attraction has an absurd final third, but until then Lyne manipulates and builds and builds with masterful control, his Unfaithful seemed like an apology for Fatal Attraction’s end, I don’t whether it was or not obviously, but that’s what it felt like to me.

    Jacob’s Ladder may have, in the long run, had more influence than people know, particularly on the anxious fantasias of the late 90s, early 2000s: Fight Club, Mulholland Dr., Vanilla Sky, The Sixth Sense, just to name a few.

  • 2 Pat Evans // Feb 27, 2008 at 4:19 am

    The kicker concept was very new when this film was made but has been rather overused subsequently. Still, a more than memorable flick.

  • 3 Piper // Feb 27, 2008 at 5:56 am

    This film hurts me. One of the greatest terrors to me is to wake up one day and discover it was all a dream. And Tim Robbins is so meek throughout this film that it just adds to the pain you feel for him when the end is revealed. Add to this that his son Gabe (which is also my son’s name) was once dead but then comes back only to be discovered that it was not real and you have one painful, painful movie.

    I have this movie in my basement and I have yet to watch it out of sheer fear. It’s like a breathing thing, stuck in a shelf that I do not dare touch.

  • 4 cjKennedy // Feb 28, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    I love Jacob’s Ladder and it always shocks me that Adrian Lyne had anything to do with it. So much of the haunting imagery has stayed with me…the creepy faceless guys peering out of the subway from hell for example.

    The way the movie slowly peels away at reality and replaces it with horror. The way it manages to resolve itself in an extremely satisfying way that makes sense and feels right when so often concepts like this paint themselves into a corner and disappoint.

    Great review and thanks for reminding me I need to see this one again soon.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Feb 28, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    Chuck: I was 17 when I saw Jacob’s Ladder and was also disturbed by it at times. In a theater with the THX sound you truly had nowhere to run. And it’s still scary. Your comment made me realize that Adrian Lyne and Bruce Joel Rubin were a good match for each other. This is the least obtuse of Lyne’s films, but it also has a power that was missing from Rubin’s directorial attempt My Life.

    Patricia: The concept is as old as Incident At Owl Creek and The Twilight Zone. And you’re right, Stay was one recent movie that tried to pull off the “it was all a dream” trick ending.

    Pat: I can’t remember ever waking up from a dream and being disappointed it wasn’t real. I think the filmmakers were suggesting that wherever Jacob ended up, he was with his son and in peace, but I can definitely see your point. However you choose to look at it, this is definitely a movie that hits you right in the gut. By the way, Gabe is a great name! Think of Peter Gabriel or Gabriel Byrne.

    Craig: Terrific comment. I have never found myself wanting to hold an Adrian Lyne film festival either, but we agree that this is a great film. In spite of the oppressive dread it summons, Tim Robbins does a great job grounding the movie, and Elizabeth Pena is simply ravishing.

  • 6 Chuck // Mar 3, 2008 at 7:16 am

    I’ll say it: I think Fatal Attraction is half of a terrific thriller and Unfaithful, while making little sense, works emotionally and has two terrific lead performances.

    Otherwise, though, I’m not a major Lyne-head either.

  • 7 cjKennedy // Mar 4, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    I think I’m unwilling to forgive Fatal Attraction for its other half. If it was an undiscovered little number I caught on video, I might give it a free pass, but as popular as it was and as much as it became a part of popular culture for a while, it bugs me. Plus it was the beginning of a long stretch where I mostly hated Michael Douglas.

    Unfaithful, I went into it expecting to hate it and pretty much got what I wanted. Wildly unfair, I know, but such are my irrational likes and dislikes.

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