As are most works of art that involve the bible, symbols are abundant in Jacobâ€™s Ladder, so if youâ€™re the type of person who hated those kinds of books in high school then you may want to skip this movie. For the rest of us, this film does a good job of balancing metaphors without going too overboard, and results in Jacobâ€™s Ladder being a unique war/flashback movie that will never need a remake even though itâ€™s good enough to deserve one. Since itâ€™s such an old movie Iâ€™ll be including big spoilers in my review, though it doesnâ€™t take a smart person to figure this film out very early on.
As are most works of art that involve the bible, symbols are abundant in Jacob’s Ladder, so if you’re the type of person who hated those kinds of books in high school then you may want to skip this movie. For the rest of us, this film does a good job of balancing metaphors without going too overboard, and results in Jacob’s Ladder being a unique war/flashback movie that will never need a remake even though it’s good enough to deserve one. Since it’s such an old movie I’ll be including big spoilers in my review, though it doesn’t take a smart person to figure this film out very early on.
After an opening scene depicting Jacob’s (Tim Robbins) time in Vietnam we’re yanked away from his stab wound with the sight of him sleeping on a New York metro subway train a few years later. It’s obvious we’ll be fed flashbacks leading up to a special war moment in his past, but with him dropping Albert Camus’s The Stranger as he wakes, we’re told that this is a thinking movie, and that the information will be leaked to us through metaphors along the way to the big reveal. Those that are bright will interpret the rest of this scene for exactly what it means. Jacob looks up at the subway ad above his head which reads “HELL” followed by an anti-drug message. After seeing the entire film, those that wish to argue this is nothing more than the director’s disgust with drugs will have decent ammo, but the real message is clear: the stab wound we just saw actually killed Jacob, and the rest of this movie will be his confused spirit letting go of his Earthly existence so that he can pass on to an afterlife. And the NYC metropolitan area certainly makes for a good Hell.
From what I remember, Camus’s novel The Stranger is about feeling isolated from society not by distance but by emotions, so it’s certainly the right pick to slap the audience in the face with twice in the movie. Jacob’s reality is filled with distant humans with horns and people passing by with grotesquely distorted faces, so it’s clear he isn’t just feeling a life haunted with post-traumatic stress disorder. We wonder why he doesn’t try to phone his war buddies sooner for someone to relate to, but to be fair the movie only takes place over the course of a few days. It’s easy to forget that fact as the camera cuts to so many flashbacks and even one extreme flashback to his old life before the war where he was still married (Patricia Kalember) and his son (Macaulay Culkin) hadn’t died yet.
Surprisingly, a young Culkin actually looks like a completely believable son for young Robbins in real life. Tim Robbins seems like a happy, wandering fool for half of the movie, which not only contrasts great with the scenes where he’s freaked out by distorted reality, but also makes it look like he’s just being calm and casual and not acting a role at all, thus making it far more believable. It’s very convincing that he’s lived here his whole life and known or loved these people for just as long. The many comfy bedroom scenes with no background music also help to establish a relaxing mood on viewers before ripping it away from them.
Much like those novels we either praised or cursed back in school, everything outside of the flashback scenes are summed up by a single revealing quote late in the story. The only character who purposely remains a one dimensional benevolent friend is Jacob’s chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello), or as Jacob likes to call him, a chubby cherub (hint hint). While we see Jacob’s current lover (Elizabeth Peña) turn on him, his war buddies shun him, society morphing into monsters, and even his memories betraying him, the one face he can always trust is Louis, who eventually offers him – and us – this helpful piece of knowledge:
“The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you, he said. They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and . . . 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.”
That single quote sums up the entire vision of this movie, and it’s nice when a movie can perfectly verbalize the message it’s trying to send. Every scene and character that Jacob comes into contact with is an encounter that peels away another layer of confusion until just the truth remains. This process of slowly revealing just how sane or crazy the lead actor is has been around for a long time and has been beaten to death ever since Primal Fear popularized a spinoff of this concept in 1996, but Jacob’s Ladder still remains as one of the best examples of how to accomplish this journey.
There are a lot of high quality cinematic and symbolic moments in this film, and only their quantity goes a bit too far in ensuring the audience gets it. Even though most questions are answered for us, we still are given a lot to think about. I could have done with a few more human mutation scenes and a few less obvious symbols, but this is definitely a movie that has, and will continue to, stand the test of time.
Jacob’s Ladder is great in that most war movies are about surviving veterans lingering on the past, but this movie instead is about someone lingering on their past before the war as they’re slowly dying in Vietnam. Disguising these moments as a false future works well, and movies like Audition should have learned from its examples. Having it make you doubt which vantage point is real, and which timeline are the flashbacks is a great adaptation to the typical war flashbacks genre of films.
Overall Score: 8.15 – Great. (Movies that score between 8.00 and 8.50 are great representations of their genre that everyone should see in theaters on opening night.)
It's a great movie that everyone should see twice so they can pick up on new things during the second viewing. Buy it on VHS for cheap so you can watch it in the same gritty and grainy manner that most people enjoyed it in.