Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Jacob's Ladder

Adrian Lynes Jacob’s Ladder is a maddening dervish of a movie. It’s dark, nervous, and soaked through with hallucinogenic angst. One could watch it through ten times in succession and still not have a grasp of what you have just seen. Despite all this, it works wonderfully as a portrait of a man’s descent into madness.

The Jacob of the title is Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a well-educated Viet Nam vet now working as a mailman. The film starts with a flashback back to the jungle, as Singer’s platoon is ambushed and suffers devastating losses. Singer himself is bayoneted and almost dies.

Pitch forward to the present, and Singer is now working in a post office, and living with a co-worker played by Elizabeth Pena. There are signs early on that there are some cracks in his psyche. Singer awakens from the Viet Nam flashback to find himself in an almost abandoned subway train. He asks a lady for help, and she is so silent and strange that it is frightening. That’s not the real kicker however – A cursory glance at a sleeping bum seems to reveal a tail like a serpent. These images defy logical explanation – This guy must be nuts, right?

Some more info is introduced. An old photo of Singers now-dead son Gabe (Macauley Culkin). We start to learn about his shattered marriage, and the tragic loss of this child.

A character from Singers past comes into play – A platoon-mate named Paul, who suffers from the same nightmarish visions. This starts to skew our view of what we are seeing, and when Paul’s car explodes in a ball of fire, it’s evident that there are more layers to this story.

The movie calls attention to the Biblical names of the main characters, and it’s interesting to investigate this in the context of the story. Jacob was the son of Isaac, and was known for having wrestled an Angel whilst on his way back to meet his estranged brother, Esau. The movie Jacob is wrestling, too, and a comment made by Jacob’s chiropractor (Danny Aiello) circles back to the biblical Jacob. “If you're frightened of dying and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.”

Then there’s the case of Singers’ woman Jezebel. The name has become synonymous with deceit and treachery, and it’s not by accident that the character has this name. It is, however, a little hard to get a firm grip on Penas’ Jezebel. She’s got a streak of treachery in her, like when she incinerates Jacobs photos of his family. On the other hand, she does seem to genuinely love him, and saves his life at one point. Like I said, she’s hard to pin down.

It’s hard to gain a toehold in this film, because Lyne doesn’t ever give you a chance to reliably stand back and decide what is real. There are passages that are plainly hallucination, sure, but he doesn’t stop there. After Jacob almost dies, and is revived, he is suddenly back with his family. It would be reasonable to assume that the previous events are imagined, but then the screenplay does a sly thing – it has Jacob jokingly reference the hallucination. “You know Jezebel from the post office? I was living with her! She had these fantastic thighs..” I found this scene not reassuring, but disorienting, like I was being teased with another layer of fog.

There’s a scene where Aiello rescues Jacob from the hospital, and again, what seems like a reprise from all the madness and disorientation actually raises a lot of questions, like how did he know Jacob was there, and how does he just waltz in and take him away? I felt the film was maybe pulling a sleight of hand on me.

I’m making this movie sound like an impossible slog, aren’t I? It IS difficult, and disorienting, but it is to its’ credit that it manages to maintain its narrative drive, as Jacob plows forward in his quest to find out what is happening to him. There is a shadowy character that we have seen briefly who seems to be following Singer, and eventually, the two men meet face-to-face. It’s here, in a barren alley that the fogs lift, as Jacob learns about a hippie chemist who made a deal with the Army to stay out of jail, and how the job he was given went horribly wrong.

This final revelation seems to lift the cloak off of Singer, and as he goes back to his old home, which seems strangely preserved in time, we think back to what the chiropractor said “If you’ve made your peace, the demons are angels freeing you from the earth.”

I spoke above about the preponderance of Biblical names in JL. The one I failed to touch on was Jacobs’ dead son Gabe (or Gabriel). The Biblical Gabriel is an angel, who is considered a messenger from God. Thus, when Jacob encounters his son again in his old home, we know why the child is there. This passage is beautifully soothing after everything we have gone through with Singer, and the expression on the man’s face as his son speaks to him is absolutely perfect – It’s sadness, recognition, love, peace, fulfillment, and relief all rolled into one divine smile.

For all the misdirection and twists in this story, however, JL saves the biggest till the last. An epilogue flashes back to Viet Nam and we encounter Jacob after he has been brought to the hospital. Theories abound about what this scene means. Is it an hallucination? Is it what really happened, and everything we have seen the hallucination? I have my own theory about it. Coming immediately after Jacob has again encountered his dead son, I think that this scene is a “reboot”, where Jacob has somehow erased all the pain and paranoia of his post-war life. Just have a listen to the song playing in the background during this sequence. The singer is Al Jolson, and the song? The song is "Sonny Boy".

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