Paranormal & Supernatural In Review: Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
I say without exaggeration that Jacob’s Ladder was one of the most visually disturbing movies I’ve ever seen. The surreal landscape of the story is terrifying and in my opinion has never been equaled by anything after.
And before I get into this, let me say that there will be spoilers. Sorry, but I want this to he a complete discussion of the film so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading, right now, and correct that oversight.
This is the kind of movie you really need to watch at least twice before you can really appreciate it. This isn’t a film that you coast through. This is a movie that you white-knuckle it for two hours before saying, wait what? What the hell just happened? Re-watching the movie, after already fully immersing yourself in it helps you fully appreciate the journey taken by this character.
I really like Tim Robbins as an actor. Some people just have the ability to grab the humanity of the character they are portraying and he is definitely one of those. And for as much attention as he gets (rightfully so) for Shawshank Redemption, Jacob’s Ladder is probably my favorite role of his. He brilliantly captured the manic terror of this postal employee’s life, having just returned from the war in Vietnam after a near-death injury and emotionally reeling from the recent death of his young son.
There’s something visually captivating about this film. Something about the colors and the lights and tones and the sounds that tug at every alarm bell you have. That even in the most innocuous of scenes, you just know that things aren’t right. There’s a grime to everything, a film on every surface. It’s an environment that fundamentally exudes the working class spirit of the film. And for me, it always takes me back to the historical place where film looked like it was happening in a real, physical place, as opposed to the image of actors being rendered into a digital landscape.
Jacob’s Ladder is a fantastic examination of the exploitation of a generation in a war that they never asked to be a part of. With very little context or explanation, I feel like I understand how these people are held down by the wealthy and powerful of society. The characters in this film are (to me) clearly trying to figure out how to survive within a machine designed to use and abuse them.
The visions and hallucinations that Jacob Singer witnesses over the course of this movie aren’t merely unsettling or disturbing. The flashes of monsters and demons he sees in the muddied and darkened world around him are terrifying. I’ve lost track of the number of times I have paused and restarted the film, trying to get a stable, clear image of the things Jacob sees.
Jacob’s life seems to be a continual spiral into the darkest places imaginable. And for me, what makes the terror of his day to day life more disturbing is the fact that he seems so completely alone. Even the woman he lives with seems to only be there for him if he is sticking to the line of what she wants. One of the most depressing parts of the movie is when she finds Jacob going over old photographs and sees him become visibly upset when he finds a photo of his son who passed away. Instead of helping him deal with this tragedy, she throws the pictures into the incinerator under the generically absurd statement of, “I don’t like things that make you cry.”
Keep that moment in the back of your mind because I think it’s actually a crucial scene when the implications of the entire movie are taken into account.
Jacob’s experiences, along with true discovery of similar experiences from fellow members of his unit lead him to the conviction that while in combat conditions, his unit was experimented on by the military, an action that is now causing them to hallucinate that they are being pursued by demons. They form a pact, determined to deliver justice to the powers that be that are responsible for their suffering.
Of course this all goes nowhere, with their attempts to legally investigate the army’s actions fizzling out before they even get started. And it seems to be what Jacob is destined for, failure and setbacks within the context of these dark entities that seem to be getting closer to him every day. The walking nightmare of his life leads up to a horrific climatic scene when he seems to be brought straight to the gates of Hell, itself. He is rescued from his apparent fate by his personal angel, Louis, brilliantly portrayed by Danny Aiello. The movie ends shortly after this, when we see Jacob climbing the stairs of his old house with the apparent ghost of his son, into bright light which clarifies to him again in Vietnam, medics leaning over him and trying to save him. And in the final, perplexing moments we see Jacob’s body, along with the doctors reflecting on how hard he had fought to stay alive.
So what the hell just happened?
There has been much debate and conjecture on what happens in Jacob’s Ladder but for me, the answer has always been pretty clear. The movie opens with a scene of Jacob in the jungle of Vietnam as he is mortally wounded. My opinion is that between this moment and the very end when we see him die, nothing of what we see really happens. Everything we see is a string of hallucinations and visual metaphors for Jacob’s own unconscious attempts to move on from the world.
I’ve always been a fan of the notion that after you die, you have to acknowledge the event of your own death. That to move on to a higher level of existence, heaven, or whatever you choose to call it, you have to be able to let go of the things you think you need to cling to. Louis tries to tell Jacob as much, earlier on in the movie by suggesting that maybe Jacob needs to change his perspective and not see the creatures coming after him as demons and that instead, perhaps they are trying to help him.
Maybe they’re actually angels.
Go back to the scene in which Jacob’s girlfriend, Jezzie, destroys all his old pictures. In that moment, it’s impossible to not feel the tragedy of Jacob’s situation. His world is literally being torn apart, from without and within, to the point where even the little scraps of memory he has of happier times is being destroyed by factors out of his control. I’ll admit, the scene still makes me angry and I’ve seen the movie a half dozen times or more.
But what if there’s a different point to the scene and what’s going on? Maybe Jezzie isn’t the horrible person we see her as in that moment. Maybe Jacob’s own self is crying for release but his conscious mind insists on clinging to the things he imbues as emotionally crucial, like a man trying to keep from being swept off a ship, grabbing for anything he can take hold of. What if Jezzie is trying to get through to him in bold fashion the importance of him letting go of the past and moving forward? Maybe the entire scene is a metaphor for Jacob’s unwillingness to let go and that his quest for rational explanations serves as an unbreakable roadblock to his own salvation.
From the start of the movie, Jacob is dying. There are parts of him that understand that and there are others that reject the notion, refusing to give in to what should be obvious. He becomes trapped in a hellish landscape inside his own mind because he can’t allow himself the smooth transition into death by understanding how all the things he knows in the world are holding him back. That the warmth of eternity is what lies ahead of him.
So in the end, what is it that finally helps him realize the need to let his life go?
The possibility of his son. Because that’s where his son really is. In the serenity of the afterlife ahead of him. Not lost behind in the abject misery of his past. Ahead of him. And perhaps the visual of the two of them climbing a set of stairs into a bright light is a bit on the nose in its symbolism but the message I see there remains the same.
At the end of the movie, when Jacob is taken as a patient to some kind of hellscape of a hospital, his life is literally on the line. We see this horrific ward of people, insane and demented, stray body parts strewn over the floors which have been long since stained with blood and other types of organic matter. And from Jacob’s perspective, it would seem that the evil forces who have been hounding him have finally gotten their way and brought him to be a prisoner in this place.
But then he is rescued. The appearance of Louis who takes him away is the reminder to him that as horrible as the surroundings are around him, they are of his own making. That as hard as he clings to the things he thinls he needs to protect in his life, the more toxic and hellish it all becomes.
After Louis saves him, Jacob appears to have reached a moment of pure clarity as he almost seems to be led to his old home, where his family once flourished. And it is when he is here, in this moment of serene calm that he sees his son, not as a tortured reminder of what he lost, but as someone he loves. Who is calling out to him. To make him understand that while Jacob might think he has been fighting off the clutching grasp of his pursuers, all he has really accomplished is to keep at arms length all those who are actually trying to help him.
Jacob takes his son’s hand and together, they climb the stairs and into the light.
And it is at that moment that we are back in the jungle. All of what we have just experienced has been washed away and we are there in that beautiful moment when Jacob dies. And it is no coincidence that it is in that moment that he seems happier than he has ever been at any moment since the film began.
Because as crucial as we think the past is, all we are doing is grabbing at mist with no substance, setting ourselves up for failure and madness. The truth of our existence, the things of value we should be seeking are ahead of us, in the warmth of possibility, not in the past where everything is slowly decaying around us into the infinity of nothingness.