Sunday 1 March 2020

1,001 Films: "Jacob's Ladder" (1990)

Directed by Adrian Lyne from another of then-fashionable Ghost screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin's metaphysical inquiries, Jacob's Ladder is one of those films that reminds you just how good the cinema can be at conveying a sense that something's amiss. These are the paranoid-or-possibly justified fantasies of mailman Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), haunted by flashbacks to the day his battalion was ambushed out in Da Nang; flashbacks that seem to parallel his activity in the present. The suspicion is that one or the other of these is an imagined reality, but then a jolting shift 40 minutes in reveals we're somewhere else entirely, at which point - as if matters weren't strange enough - in walks a Home Alone-era Macaulay Culkin as Jacob Singer's son. With every cut - severance might be the word - we feel a jarring disconnect from that reality we might previously have clung to; with each new scene, there's at least one element that doesn't quite fit with its surrounds. Coming off the back of Fatal Attraction, Lyne is on unusually subtle form here: his stylistic hang-up on smoke and ceiling fans gets sublimated into whirling helicopter blades and burning villages during the 'Nam scenes, and he quietly scatters Rubin's hints and clues between set-pieces like the car coming out of nowhere to chase Jacob down an alley, or a strobe-lit 70s party that slowly tilts off-kilter. Along the way, there are curious encounters with interesting actors: Danny Aiello as a philosophical chiropractor, Law & Order's S. Epatha Merkerson as a palm reader who tells our hero that he's dead already, Pruitt Taylor Vince as a fellow Vet who comes to an explosive end, Matt Craven as the film's Oppenheimer figure, and Jason Alexander as a lawyer who claims he doesn't know Jacob from Adam. (By this point, you may well start to wonder what's with all the Biblical allusions.) It arrives at resolution without too much in the way of explanation, but benefits from the fact this is one of those twist movies where the big reveal has yet to enter into general circulation; what keeps it just the right side of narrative chicanery is that Robbins' baby-faced bewilderment proves surprisingly touching.

Jacob's Ladder is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through StudioCanal, and to stream via Amazon Prime.

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