New Classic: Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder, directed by Adrian Lyne and released in 1990, is a remarkable movie.  To classify it specifically as a horror film is to oversimplify, for Jacob’s Ladder fucks with notions of genre as much as it fucks with the minds of its viewers.  Indeed, the film might be best classified as a complex horror-drama, as its story is one of self-discovery and personal growth in the face of excessive mental and physical trauma.  In fact, I’ve encountered no other film that deals with the Vietnam War so abstractly, and yet so fully asks (or forces) the viewer to consider the aftereffects of gratuitous, perhaps pointless, armed conflict. 

In Jacob’s Ladder, the titular Jacob Singer (played by the excellent Tim Robbins) finds himself working in a New York City mailroom years after his return from Vietnam.  Increasingly unable to cope with his memories of both the war and the picturesque family life he had before he shipped out overseas, Jacob begins to hallucinate ghostly demons and terrifying monsters pursuing him through the overcrowded urban cityscape he traverses.  Finding it difficult to distinguish reality from his personal nightmarish perception, Jacob is also unable to fully recount his experiences in Vietnam.  This leads both the character and the audience to initially ask which is worse: unshakeable paranoid delusions, or taking the lives of others while simultaneously being brutalized.  Eventually, it becomes clear that to Lyne, and to Jacob, the nightmare delusions and the effects of war are inextricably fused.  It’s not a choice between the two that Jacob and the audience face; it is an understanding that war and its mentally-chaotic aftermath are bound together which must be digested.  A frequently startling and downright scary horror movie, Jacob’s Ladder is one of the most interesting approaches to post-traumatic stress and trauma undertaken in American cinema.   

Undoubtedly, countless films take the Vietnam War as their subject, and some of our greatest directors have dealt with this most stratifying of international conflicts in a serious and moral manner.  To name but a few: Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Apocalypse Now, Oliver Stone’s contentious Platoon, and Brian De Palma’s tragic Casualties of War.  As far as the non-serious and immoral go, George Cosmatos’ Rambo: First Blood Part II takes the cake.  Yet none of these films have the grotesque intensity, the creeping and eerie feeling of perpetual dread, or the claustrophobic structuring of Jacob’s Ladder.  This last point deserves particular mention: Jacob’s Ladder is a film that makes the viewer feel trapped, contained, stifled, suffocated.  It isn’t a pleasant feeling, but it is a powerful one.  While most Vietnam films show the audience war’s horrors in an upfront, confrontational manner, Jacob’s Ladder forces the viewer to feel their way through such battles and then experience their traumatic results along with the protagonist.  While we, as viewers, never share Jacob’s literal point-of-view, we nonetheless are fully implanted within the character’s mind. 

The horror in Jacob’s Ladder is experiential; individual scenes build to an intense crescendo of terror, as we, like Jacob, are unable to always tell the difference between reality and delusion, nor necessarily trace the delusion back to where it began.  The film’s most terrifying scene, as Jacob is wheeled into a hospital on a gurney, is structured in just this way: with a single cut, we have transcended from the everyday to the horrendously delusional, and neither we nor Jacob can explain how, when or why this transformation took place.  As such, Jacob’s Ladder is a masterpiece of affective cinema.  The film draws you in and takes you on the gurney ride with its main character.  It evokes in its audience the feelings that – and here I can only assume – one experiences during conflict.  Like war, Jacob’s Ladder is a shattering, horrifying experience.  A mature, thoughtful film that never plays its terrors or its representation of Vietnam for cheap thrills alone, Jacob’s Ladder is a challenging movie, a testament to the profound expressive possibilities existing within the horror genre, and a certifiable New Classic.

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