Fantasy bleeds into reality. Angels appear as demons, and vice versa. A man makes his way through an urban maze that resembles purgatory in every conceivable way. And life and death become grim parodies of each other, with the lines between the two becoming increasingly blurred. This is the world of Jacob’s Ladder, a dark urban fantasy that feels like the unholy marriage between Old Testament retribution and redemption, and the gothic stylings of H.P. Lovecraft.
The plot of the film is deliberately confusing and confused, with almost every scene adding increasingly elliptic layers to the damaged world our characters stumble through. But the bare bones are these: Vietnam veteran Jacob Singer (brilliantly and mawkishly played by Tim Robbins), a postal worker with a P.H.D. finds himself haunted by what may either be real world demons or scars left by war. Troubled by these sights, and driven to the very point of madness, he begins to reach out to his old battalion, searching for answers that become more elusive the longer he searches for them.
It’s paranoid, anxious stuff, and indeed a large section of the film explores the distinct unreality of Jacob Singer’s world. Nothing and no one can be trusted, not even the movie itself, as its director Adrian Lyne cuts through time, leaving the audience utterly unsettled. Each scene change leaves us wondering exactly how far into the future we have travelled, and it often takes several minutes before we can even begin to guess whether what we’re watching is a flashback, a dream sequence, or the version of ‘reality’ in which we and Singer have found ourselves trapped. We are never safe, and we are never certain, and quite quickly we become as paranoid and unhinged as Singer himself.
Lyne’s directorial work is the best of his entire career. He controls proceedings with an extremely even hand, filming one early, terrifying scene on a subway without ever falling back on the regular tricks of the trade. The scene takes place almost entirely in silence: Lyne doesn’t use loud orchestral stings, or cheap foley work. He lets the horror of the scene play out with barely any fanfare, allowing a single horrifying face flying by in a train window to do all of the work for him.
But the film’s real genius lies in the way it sticks to its convictions, and follows the tale through to its natural conclusion. It’s not hard to imagine the sanitised version of this story: it ends happily, and without the twist that leaves viewers of Jacob’s Ladder with more questions than answers. But that hypothetical film is the boring one, and as it stands the film features a finale as shocking as it is genuinely, unexpectedly moving. It might not be the Hollywood ending, or the one that pleases people. But it’s the right ending; a jarring, redemptive end to a trip through some very dark territory.