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Jacob's Ladder

#679 - Jacob's Ladder
Adrian Lyne, 1990

A Vietnam veteran tries to readjust to civilian life but is constantly experiencing paranoia and hallucinations.

Warning: the following review contains unmarked spoilers for Jacob's Ladder.

Pulling off the type of twist ending that changes how an audience will interpret a story the second time around actually seems to be pretty difficult. One can pick up on all the little details that initially seemed insignificant but now add entire layers of depth to the film; then again, one could easily start seeing gaps in the film's established internal logic that have been overlooked in favour of having a left-field development with which to conclude the story in an impressive manner. Jacob's Ladder somehow manages to be the kind of film where the ending is supposed to change everything, but re-watching the film does not provide a sense of added depth or reductive inconsistency so much as...weightlessness. The film itself still seems like a decent example of a psychological thriller as it follows Jacob (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam veteran who now works in a New York post office. Though he's living a fairly normal life now with his girlfriend and co-worker (Elizabeth Peña), he is still haunted by the thought of his estranged family and his traumatic experiences during the war. That's before he starts seeing more unnerving things take place, such as uncanny figures following him at a distance. As his hallucinations and physical well-being worsen, he starts to realise that there might be a greater conspiracy at work here...

Credit where credit's due, Jacob's Ladder holds up okay thanks mainly to the fairly effective atmosphere it builds up. Robbins makes for an appropriately uncomfortable everyman protagonist who believably communicates the wide variety of emotions one might experience during a paranoid breakdown, while Peña does well as his beleagured girlfriend who tries to be supportive through the strain. Other recognisable character actors lend weight to fairly limited roles, whether it's Danny Aiello as Jacob's philosophical chiropractor or Jason Alexander as a sleazy attorney. While the plot doesn't exactly feel especially interesting in and of itself, it's at least compensated for by some fairly inventive uses of horror-like visuals such as inhuman vibrating heads or that entire hospital scene that takes place late in the film. The more overtly disturbing sights on display are enough to compensate for a somewhat underwhelming plot that is not exactly improved by foreknowledge of the ending and a comprehension of its rather shallow religious subtext.