Jacob's Ladder - a review (unbiased hopefully)
Jacob’s Ladder is underrated. I know that some people might have heard of it, and I can already hear the ‘but it’s inspired so much’es but bear with me. After my last two reviews about films made in and about Germany, and one joke review about Battle Royale, I wanted to do a review about something different – something that does not involve my love of the bottom quarter of the screen – and so I shall review an American horror film from the early 90s, a film that is rather close to my heart.
The story itself is interesting, well thought out and well developed, even if it does borrow heavily from the Ambrose Beirce short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The overall message of the film is nothing we have not seen before: the entire message could be boiled down to ‘A man’s worst enemy is himself’ something Tom Clancy cannot help but masturbate over the blurbs of all his books. The film also uses the military as a kind of backdrop too – again, strangely not unlike Tom Clancy - but don't think Tom Clancy has anything to do with this film! – as it uses the MK Ultra project as a backdrop to the events of the film. This must not make the film director, Adrian Lyne, very popular with his own government.
As said before Jacob’s Ladder has inspired a lot of modern horror, and it started the ‘Rubber Reality’ films like Donne Darko. The Silent Hill video game series also takes a lot from this movie, ranging from actual inspiration to actual plagiarism veiled as 'homage'.
The film opens with a brief friendly scene in which soldiers in an unnamed Vietnam village sit around talking like they just left high school before a stark and brutal fire fight between members of that largest of NRA fan clubs that is the US army and a then unknown, unseen enemy. Jacob Singer is.... the protagonist, and is also stabbed and left to die in the bush by an assailant. Then he wakes up. He’s on a train in New York years later and proceeds to live a normal life. But things quickly turn against him, and he comes to find – not just believe – that he is being stalked by things not-quite-human.
The whole effect is that after a blistering opening and some truly graphic scene with legs blown halfway to hell, and soldiers having convulsions and throwing up, the next part of the film is very tame and subtle. The film suffers from this because the opening is very strong and memorable, leading you to believe when you watch it for the first time that you are watching a war film, and then for the film to settle and it become a very subtle, psychological film the change in mood is almost jarring. The aim here was to presumably make us feel safe in this urban environment, but because there is no sense of any real danger to the protagonist we begin to feel less like something is wrong and more like nothing is happening.
This is not to say that this part of the film is bad. Far from it, its well shot, well acted, well scripted and has a number of subtle symbols that are extremely rewording to find. It’s just that the clash of tone between the opening and this part is so great it feels like two different films which is both a point in its favour and a real problem.
The film starts to build quickly in the second half of the film as Jacob’s life spirals out of control. Symbols and horrific imagery are aplenty here, and the effect is truly horrifying. It is here when the film comes into its own, and we begin to sympathise with Jacob a lot more now that reality and nightmarish fantasy start to mix together; resulting in one of the most intense and deeply disturbing scenes in cinema. This part of the film just builds and builds and builds until the ending: which is perhaps one of the most beautiful and meaningful endings to a film that I have ever seen. However, with a film like Jacob’s Ladder the ending could either leave you spellbound or thoroughly confused. What you feel at the end relates entirely to how much attention you paid to the dialogue, which leads me to a very lazy, and poor complaint about the narration in the film. Throughout the film Jacob is shown as very intelligent, a man who earned a degree in philosophy sometime long before the films events. However, he has to be told a quote from Eckhart. The reason is obvious: to tell the viewer something important about the plot, but the style of delivery is poor. This is not good storytelling: surely if Jacob Singer has a degree in philosophy then he should already know of Eckhart and his ideas?
That said though, the film extremely well made, and a personal favourite. The ending is astounding in its beauty, and it is the sort of film that stays with you long after you are finished watching as you reflect on it, and work the films finer points out, which is something I really appreciate. I must admit that this review was hard to write from an unbiased position because I am such a fan of Jacob's Ladder.
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