by Gabriella Pakeman
From the December 2015 Issue**SPOILERS**
Is this reality or the symptoms of an unspeakable terror? This is the question that pervades the life of Jacob Singer, the protagonist of director Adrian Lyne’s psychological horror film, Jacob’s Ladder. Lyne’s film was heavily influenced by a biblical story from Genesis pertaining to the meeting place between Heaven and Earth. It is also a rehash of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, set in the post-Vietnam War era.
Centering on Singer’s reintegration into society following his traumatic experiences as a soldier in Vietnam, the movie opens with a scene of Jacob and his fellow troops enjoying each other’s company while having lunch together. Moments later, the light-hearted scene takes a turn for the worst, when the group is spontaneously massacred by the enemy. The deaths appear excruciatingly painful, with some exhibiting signs of catatonia and bloody convulsions. In an attempt to escape the carnage, Jacob runs into the jungle and is stabbed in the abdomen shortly after. The scene immediately draws to a close, leaving viewers both rattled and confused.
Before the audience has time to process what has happened, the film skips to a lonesome Jacob awakening from a nap on a subway train. He awakes just in time for the train’s arrival at his stop, but shortly upon exiting, finds himself imprisoned within the confines of the subway station. He begins to panic, desperately searching for an exit. His search grows increasingly frightening when he encounters a homeless man with a tail and what appears to be an old woman staring at him from the window of a passing train. The scene evokes the kind of suspense and urgency we tend to experience while having a nightmare. It was said that the idea for Jacob’s Ladder stemmed from screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin’s nightmare of being trapped in a subway. Rubin shares with his audience a dark, complex element of his subconscious, completely authentic in nature, making the scene all the more convincing.
It is now the 1980’s, and Jacob’s war days are far behind him. He is a postman, recently divorced, living with his girlfriend, Jezzie, in a small apartment. Despite establishing a new life for himself, he is plagued by flashbacks concerning his former wife and feelings of grief over the untimely death of their son. Jezzie incinerates numerous photos of Jacob’s wife and children. In her defense, she claims that doing so will allow him to heal from the past.
Throughout the film, Jacob struggles with the persistent, terrifying hallucinations of demonic entities (visually inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon) trying to communicate an eerie message to him. The hallucinations start to come about more frequently as the movie progresses, to the point at which Jacob begins to seek emotional support from his girlfriend; words of wisdom from his close-friend and chiropractor, Louis; and solutions from his surviving comrades, who contact him regularly about their similar symptoms. Jezzie cannot begin to comprehend the trauma Jacob is experiencing on a day to day basis, failing to give sympathy for a hallucination-induced panic attack he experiences at a party they both attend. Louis, on the other hand, provides him with not only support, but an insight into the key message of the film, saying:
“The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life, your memories, your attachments. They burn’em all away. But they’re not punishing you… 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.”Jacob’s Ladder is a brilliant example of a movie that does not require gore and computer generated images to evoke a strong emotional response from its viewers. The washed-out, dreary cinematographic color schemes and juxtaposing ambient music soundtrack add to the psychologically disturbing nature of the movie. It is a known fact among those who study color psychology that sadness impairs color perception.When we think about emotional turmoil and depression in terms of color psychology, we see muted greys, blues and browns. Had the film’s aesthetic and visual palette been brighter (like, say, a Wes Anderson), the ongoing ominous feel throughout the film simply could not have been accomplished. The ambient music score only adds to the solemn, emotionally taxing nature of the film. It almost makes you feel as though you, yourself, are growing weary of the persistence and frequency of Jacob’s hallucinations.
The demons Jacob sees are a manifestation of his post-traumatic stress disorder: a byproduct of the drug he and his fellow veterans had been given to increase their levels of aggression on the Vietnamese battlefields. The chemical is referred to as “the Ladder,” which ironically, yet intentionally, shares a name with the most prominent motif in the film. All throughout the movie, there are recurring images of ladders and staircases in alleys, hallways and rooms. They symbolize Jacob’s growing need to realize that letting go and allowing himself to pass away will give him access to what lies ahead for him at the top of these stairs/ladders. This discovery (in terms of the literary works of Dante Alighieri) will enable him to leave the emotionally draining Purgatory he had created for himself and consequently enter what would be regarded as Paradise/Heaven. Jacob’s girlfriend, Jezzie, is symbolic of the temptation to continue living in the earthly confines of this Purgatory. This temptation is demonstrated through the numerous scenes in which she is casually topless, seducing Jacob, ultimately distracting him from the reality of his inner turmoil.
At the very beginning of the film, Jacob is seen reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger. This is a prime example of Rubin and Lyne’s strategic attempt to introduce the viewers to what would eventually become the main theme of the film. Jacob Singer is very much similar to the protagonist of Camus’ novel. In The Stranger, protagonist Meursault struggles to come to terms with his impending execution at the prison. In a desperate attempt to ease his feelings of fear stemming from the inevitability of his fate, he imagines and dreams of his escape. Like Jacob Singer, he is fighting off the prospect of death. In the end, Meursault not only grows to accept his fate, but welcomes it, for he knows that letting go of the physical world will bring him peace. The ending of Jacob’s Ladder suggests that Jacob arrives at a similar epiphany to that of Meursault.
Rubin and Lyne collaboratively toy with the film’s emphasis on the concept of life and death—the latter a concept that many people brush under the rug and don’t accept until it’s too late. They feed off this universal fear humans possess: that is, the fear of the unknown. Jacob spends the entirety of the film in a consistent state of fear because he does not comprehend the things he sees, strongly believing they have malevolent intent and will kill him. He is running away from the prospect of death, the way most people do in real life. Because of this relatable reaction, viewers are easily able to empathize with the troubled protagonist’s situation. The film is truly eye-opening and deserves a viewing by anyone who enjoys art forms that interact with their psyche.
5 out of 5 stars