Nearly a decade before audiences chatted about the “surprise” ending of “The Sixth Sense” as though it were a big deal, Adrian Lyne’s psychological thriller left its audience too depleted to speak. “Jacob’s Ladder” is a terrifying film, a devastating experience people try to forget, rather than bring up at parties.
Tim Robbins plays Jacob Singer, a lanky Vietnam War veteran who suffers from hallucinations. Many times, his whole life — complete with a romantic relationship to a beautiful woman — seems questionable. By day, Jacob works for the post office in New York City with his live-in girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña). On the subway he reads a dog-eared copy of Camus’s absurdist novel “The Stranger,” about a man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral. Flashbacks from his wartime experiences with his troop haunt him, as do remembrances of a failed marriage that ended after their young son was run over on his bicycle.
Tim Robbins sums up his bedeviled character with a delicate balance of intelligence and fog. He’s like a wounded puppy the audience wants to help. However, people and things are out to get Jacob. He’s almost run over by a subway car. A carload of men tries to run him down. Weird demons appear at the fringes of his vision.
A visit to his sympathetic chiropractor Louie (Danny Aiello) finally helps alleviate the nagging confusion and physical pain that Jacob suffers. When Jacob slips into a 106 fever, Jezzie and his apartment’s neighbors bring ice to pour on his scalding body in the bathtub.
Adrian Lyne masterfully coordinates the way the audience experiences Jacob’s knotted state so that there is ebb and flow to the way the exposition mounts. The audience has to time to think between excruciating sequences of suspense.
Jacob’s ever-revealing flashbacks prompt him to reconnect with the other surviving members of his company. They too suffer from ghastly hallucinations. Vague memories of a violent attack in the Vietnam jungle demand answers. Jacob and his Army buddies decide to request an investigation into the mysterious event that ended their service, but inexplicably back out after meeting with an attorney.
Is Jacob’s post-traumatic stress disorder a symptom or a cause? Is, or was, Jacob a lab rat in a government experiment à la the CIA’s LSD trials? Are any of Jacob’s friends really on his side, or are they all in on a plot to ruin him? These and many other big questions proliferate a movie about war and human life from a well-informed perspective that sees through the miasma of social distractions that the media and history pile on.
The ending to “Jacob’s Ladder” has long been cause for confusion to critics and filmgoers alike. You can’t watch the film without getting involved.
Rated R. 116 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
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