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Filming the Best Unfilmed Script in Hollywood
There are signs that Jacob’s Ladder is finally getting the retrospective attention it truly warrants.
Originally written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who would become one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters after his work on Ghost, the script for Jacob’s Ladder was ironically both highly regarded in the industry and yet thought unfilmable. It was even considered the best unfilmed script in Hollywood and written about in an article in the influential journal American Film. Yet it remained unmade until director Adrian Lyne was looking for a new project to follow his hit Fatal Attraction and was handed the script after requesting something good and unusual. He subsequently took to the project with a visionary zeal not as evident in his fondness for high-concept modern morality plays. Indeed, within Lyne’s accomplished filmography, Jacob’s Ladder remains something of the odd film out, and many critics were thus somewhat unprepared for this remarkable, enigmatic and even baffling film and in the divisive reaction there was an apparent tendency to dismiss it in part because of a general hostility towards the blend of sensationalism and sophisticated glossiness in Lyne’s other works. Those who responded positively to it, however, were almost overawed by the movie, with some going so far as to claim that the film was designed so as to actually provoke or awaken a psychotic state within the viewer.
Synopsis (contains spoilers)
Tim Robbins plays a soldier in Vietnam whose unit comes under fire. In the ensuing chaos, he wanders into the woods and is wounded. An abrupt cut to several years later in New York City.
Robbins is now a mailman, living with a woman (Elizabeth Pena) although he has sad memories of his lost child and is troubled by continued Vietnam flashbacks. On the way home one day, Robbins suffers bizarre visions and is at a loss to explain them. The only calming presence in his life is his dutiful chiropractor (a cherubic Danny Aiello). He goes to his veteran’s hospital but flees upon seeing something mysterious. His demonic intimations continue until he collapses at a party. Taken home, he runs a fever and is given an ice bath. Some time later, he awakens next to another woman and tells her that he has been dreaming that he was in another relationship with a co-worker (Pena). His world has fractured. Soon, his grip on reality becomes even more confusing when he is approached by a former member of his combat unit who has been suffering from a similar hallucinatory psychosis. Evidence of a conspiracy begins to surface and at a funeral, Robbins is back in touch with other men from his unit, all with similar symptoms. They hire a lawyer (Jason Alexander) for a class action suit alleging military misconduct, but soon Robbins must contend with something far more sinister and spiritual when he begins to doubt those closest to him.
Spiritual Allegory: the Biblical "First Death" as Psychotic Identity Dissolution
Jacob’s Ladder concerns a spiritual journey – the process of what is commonly known as the Biblical “first death” – visualized in terms akin to a paranoid schizophrenic psychosis.
It occurs in a state of perceptual transience as the mind (or soul) has to leave one state of being for another but cannot let go of what it considers integral to its life in that initial state. Indeed, as the film is structured to incorporate a series of seeming Vietnam flashbacks, so too it gradually becomes clear that what is accepted as past is the present, and that the “reality” of Robbins’ life as we have been following it is the psychotic construct of a dying man. Slowly, the real and the imaginary become intertwined in the film’s continuous play with subjective experience as time and space are subject to a schizophrenic dissolution, both perceptual and psychological. Dying is paralleled to psychosis – as such, the essence of transformation and psychotic, spiritual metamorphosis. Of course, the net result of this perceptual confusion is the descent into an ever more elaborate paranoia which may be rooted in an objective military conspiracy or which in turn may be the product of a mind desperately longing to keep itself grounded but lapsing into paranoid delusion. Other films have toyed with such notions – Altered States for one – but Jacob’s Ladder remains the most provocative of these “visions of madness” in its spiritual intimations.
Yet the interplay of cause and effect is also most intriguing here. Hallucination (or the inclination of demonic presences) seems to be the first stage in the process leading to the dissolution of the identity.
As the many layers of Robbins’ identity are systematically peeled away, both perceptual certainty and memory slowly intertwine in what seems a struggle against a fated end - death. Indeed, the idea of a man whose sense of certainty in self is gradually eroded is a common theme throughout Lyne’s work, its most disturbing implications finally confronted most personally in Jacob’s Ladder. As fascinating as the film is as an exploration of spiritual surreality it seeks nevertheless to teasingly provide some explanations for what is a completely frightening and inexplicable loss of control. The explanations, though, are Robbins’ delusions and by inviting audience acceptance of them makes for an approximation of psychosis. The ending, reminiscent in part of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, gives the film its spiritual context wherein the rather contrived conspiracy mechanics can be explained as Robbins’ need to explain his own otherwise inexplicable predicament – the paranoid creation of delusion. Indeed, therein lays the horror of the film, in the loss of psychological self-control and subsequent perceptual stability, with hallucination and delusion emerging from the paranoid drive to re-establish order.
Hallucination & Perception: Visualizing the "Paranoid-Critical"
The 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer is professional despite a murkiness which may obscure clarity on some shots: it is noticeable but never severe.
The film has an astonishing sense of the hallucinatory uncertainty of perception – a key motif throughout – and the way in which people and events increasingly have significance beyond the apparent chronicles the film’s descent into a paranoid vision. Again, this adopts a schizophrenic approach: ideas of reference as a precursor to paranoid delusion. It has a cold sophistication, full of the glossy elegance typical of Lyne (often attributed to his background in television commercials) with a structural emphasis on the notion of the persistence of memory. The seeming hallucinations are kept abrupt and pass by quickly, adding to the sense of uncertainty so well established. They are often blurry, Lyne admittedly intending to evoke the paintings of Francis Bacon. It is a glistening world of almost hostile coldness, with the little warmth being a respite from the chaos of Robbins’ increasingly fevered mind. Such respite is found only with Aiello and in the ending’s intimation of happiness. A journey down a hospital corridor becomes a fearful descent into hell in the film’s most astonishing sequence. The notion of the madhouse thus becomes a motif in the film, its purpose seemingly to equate the process of dying with the psychotic dissolution of the identity.
The Perceptual Uncertainty of Destabilizing Expressionism
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound transfer is exceptional. The evocative score by Maurice Jarre adds both a mournful delicacy and a mounting urgency, tied as it is to Robbins’ awareness of his own disintegrating mental state.
Abrupt changes in levels between quiet, minor, ordinary sounds and almost crashing loudness are appropriately jarring. The uneasy use of directional effects in the surround space adds to the increasing sense of disorientation, further allying the viewer’s helplessness to Robbins’ fate. With score and diegetic sound levels always linked to the notion of perceptual uncertainty and destabilization, the aural design is as important to the overall effect as is the visual style – thus, there is an otherworldly sound to many of the abrupt hallucinations and natural, familiar sounds are gradually made to seem dangerous and even threatening. Robbins’ lone auditory hallucination (of a voice) proves a devastating moment, adding to the film’s relentless plunge. Just as Lyne establishes a convincing aural realism, so too he seeks to undermine it: all calm is illusory in this movie, except perhaps for the final moments in a film building to one man’s need to make peace with his fate. A gentle rainfall is nicely used, and an abrupt explosion contributes to a sense of danger and an ever-extending sphere of paranoia. A slowing heartbeat, with attendant flashes of vision, is used to striking Expressionist effect in the final scenes.
Bonus Treats for DVD Enthusiasts
As befits a Special Edition DVD, there are numerous extras, all of which enhance the experience of this movie.
Included is an original trailer and television spot, several nicely informative text pages of production notes and a cast and crew list with biographies. There are a number of deleted scenes (some of which add to the LSD type psychedelia of the movie’s conspiracy sideline) with optional director’s commentary. The sound quality in the deleted scenes has a pronounced hiss, however, and the visual transfers are rather murkier than the movie as it appears on this DVD. There is an informative documentary featurette, in which the movie is described succinctly as “the dissolution of a man who is dying”. It covers the approach to demonic imagery, the visualization of a dying mind, and has screenwriter Rubin discuss his particular interest in dissolution. Director Lyne says that star Robbins sought the lightness in the character (as a humanizing means) and admits that he used in-camera effects throughout the film to enhance the realism of the hallucinatory scenes. He specifically refers to one scene taken out of the movie (but included on the DVD as a deleted scene) and talks of the importance of the idea of closure in human life. He discusses the intent to reveal Pena as a more demonic figure in the deleted scenes (and this is brought out further in the optional director’s commentary for that scene).
In addition is an insightful and engrossing commentary track by director Adrian Lyne in which he talks of how he became involved in the project (and of how it reminded him in particular of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge), how he researched the Vietnam sequences to get the right look and of how his visualization differed in part from some details in the script.
He talks of the visual influence of the paintings of Francis Bacon and says that he sought to achieve a kind of “Thalidomide imagery” for a look of fleshy deformation. There is much discussion of his visual style (in Jacob’s Ladder and in his work in general) with particular reference to the importance of close-ups for an added sense of tactility, often in quick glimpses to evoke time and place. He talks of his use of 16mm for the scenes of Robbins’ character and his son and on how the film was difficult to edit due to its conception of different times and shifting realities, intertwined with persistent memories. The long-rumored LSD-type drug experimentation in Vietnam alluded to in the film is also brought up as Lyne discusses the film’s thematic basis and plot manipulations. The commentary puts the film in appropriate perspective and is a most useful addition to the appreciation of Jacob’s Ladder as one of the truly few films to have sought to fuse the means of schizophrenic psychosis to film narrative and indeed to film form.
US BLU-RAY PURCHASE INFORMATION: Jacob's Ladder [Blu-ray]
UK BLU-RAY PURCHASE INFORMATION:Jacob's Ladder [Blu-ray] 
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