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Vietnam veteran Jacob Singer is tormented by the vivid memories of war and the heartbreaking death of his son. Demonic visions and hallucinations begin to haunt him day and night, leaving Jacob disturbed and searching for answers. Unsure if he is suffering from post-traumatic stress, dementia, or something paranormal, Jacob finds himself quickly spiraling out of control.
For more about Jacob's Ladder and the Jacob's Ladder Blu-ray release, see Jacob's Ladder Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on September 27, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, John Capodice, Matt Craven, Pruitt Taylor Vince
Director: Adrian Lyne
» See full cast & crew
Jacob's Ladder Blu-ray Review
Tim Robbins sees dead people.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, September 27, 2010
Twist endings most recently came into vogue with the initially celebrated work of M. Night Shyamalan, who crafted a doozy in The Sixth Sense and then went on to diminishing returns (and surprises) in several subsequent films. But the twist ending has many cinematic forebears going back to virtually the silent age, and in fact, literary antecedents from long before celluloid ever passed in front of a flickering light. One of the most celebrated short stories with a twist ending is Ambrose Bierce's 1890 masterpiece "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (sometimes published as "An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge"), which told the story of Confederate sympathizer Peyton Farquhar, who escapes a hangman's noose to have a rather odd set of adventures. (It's worth noting that Bierce's story has a 14th century (!) precursor). Twilight Zone fans may well remember the Oscar winning short film which was culled from Bierce's story and which ran as an episode on that series in 1964. It's appropriate then to hear director Adrian Lyne in the commentary on this Blu-ray quite rightly point out the very distinct similarities between Bierce's plot, including the final twist, and that of scenarist Bruce Joel Rubin in Jacob's Ladder, a film that doesn't ever really hide its putative surprise, but which still is able to craft a very suspenseful, intentionally hallucinogenic experience that is both unsettling and emotionally disturbing.
Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is a soldier in Vietnam his platoon buddies affectionately call "The Professor." We open on a 1971 Mekong Delta scene (personal aside: on October 6, my birthday), as the platoon seems exhausted, barely able to keep their eyes open, as they wait for the "gooks" to attack. Almost simultaneously, an attack does begin as several members of the platoon seem to be reeling from what might be a reaction to chemical warfare. Jacob is seen trepidatiously moving through the jungle when he is suddenly stabbed with a bayonet. Quick cut to a New York subway, evidently a few years later, where Jacob startles awake, almost dropping his copy of Albert Camus' The Stranger. Thus begins a two hour or so odyssey wherein Jacob seems lost in a present day nightmare, even as he repeatedly relives experiences from both Vietnam, as well as his life before the war, including the tragic death of his young son (a barely post-toddler Macaulay Culkin in an uncredited appearance).
Lyne and Rubin play with time here to deliberately throw the audience off of a traditional linear narrative curve. It's clear that something bad has happened to Jacob, but while massive hints are dropped along the way, it's never completely clear whether he's suffering delusions as the result of having been drugged in Vietnam as part of a nefarious Pentagon experiment, or is in fact in his own death throes. When the denouement makes the ultimate reason for this nightmare journey clear, it frankly isn't that much of a surprise, but it doesn't lessen the very disquieting trek we've just experienced with Jacob, a "trip" (in every sense of the word) that includes everything from several near death experiences, putative friends turning evil, and a very unsettling operation scene.
Jacob's Ladder delves into the dark corners of the psyche in some very astute ways, some of them relatively subtle for a thriller. When Jacob passes by a homeless man sleeping on the subway, is that a scorpion-like tail we see curled up underneath the man's trenchcoat? Is Jacob's supposed girlfriend Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña) there to help or harm Jacob? When Jacob finds himself being wheeled through a grotesque asylum full of amputated body parts, who is the frightening faceless man who injects a long syringe into our hapless hero's forehead? There's also the justifiably famous shot in that same asylum sequence of the torso with a head manically shaking back and forth, an image which seemingly burned itself into the collective unconscious when Jacob's Ladder was first released in 1990, and which has gone on to be a signature moment in several other horror films of perhaps less artistic ambition than this one.
Part of the fun (if it can be called that in a film this bleak and often harrowing) of watching Jacob's Ladder is seeing a bevy of actors who have since gone on to greater renown. While Danny Aiello, as Jacob's chiropractor, has remained at about the same stratum as he was in the 1990s, seeing early work from such notables as Jason Alexander, Ving Rhames, and Eriq LaSalle perks the viewer's interest, if perhaps for extra-curricular reasons. (It's notable to also see Lewis Black billed as the Doctor, and I've never been able to firmly determine whether he's perhaps the faceless man in the horrifying operation sequence, or I'm just not recognizing the comedian from his more youthful days).
Jacob's Ladder may in fact not be the most subtle or artful depiction of this particular "twist," and I'd actually give the French short film version of Owl Creek Bridge that honor. It's obviously briefer, more to the point, and doesn't delve into the quasi-religious mystical hoohah that Ladder does, making the denouement all the more shocking. But Jacob's Ladder has been an undeniably influential film, one which ushered in a whole slew of imitators that sought to create questions in the audience's mind about what exactly was being seen and if indeed it was actually happening. That sense of irreality is perhaps Jacob's Ladder's most lasting legacy, a fitting analog for an era when we were never quite sure what (or whom) to believe.
Jacob's Ladder Blu-ray, Video Quality
Jacob's Ladder climbs onto Blu-ray with an AVC encoded 1080p image in 1.85:1. This was never the sharpest looking film even in its theatrical presentation, and this Blu-ray certainly replicates that softness to a tee. While there is a noticeable upgrade over the SD-DVD, it isn't to the point where anyone other than ardent fans may want to invest in this version. Lyne and DP Jeffrey L. Kimball opt for a deliberately lo-fi, extremely grainy and low contrast look which some who are new to the film may mistake for a less than stellar transfer on this particular Blu-ray. Colors are never extremely well saturated here, and the entire film is dark and fuzzy. All of this said, close-ups reveal some nice detail and several segments, notably the opening Vietnam sequence, while drenched in a hazy yellow color, offer considerably more sharpness than the SD-DVD.
Jacob's Ladder Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Jacob's Ladder's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a good deal more impressive on this new Blu-ray incarnation than the image quality is. Immersion is precise and very, very effective from almost the first moment of the film, when we hear a battery of helicopters panning over our heads. Even more ostensibly subtle moments, as in the next sequence (aboard the subway) have great attention to detail. The hiss of compression brakes seeps in from the side channels, and once Jacob is trying to get across the subway tunnel and a train suddenly appears, a really impressive rumble of LFE fills the sub-woofer. This is a film filled with excellent foley effects and they keep the viewer (and listener) deliberately offguard, with a variety of unexpected surround placements often suddenly bursting into the soundfield. Dialogue is extremely clear and crisp, and both the source cues and underscore are well mixed into the overall soundfield. All in all, this is a very impressive showing for a 20 year old soundtrack.
Jacob's Ladder Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
All of the supplements from the Special Edition DVD of Jacob's Ladder have been ported over to this Blu-ray release:
Jacob's Ladder Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
You may see the "twist" coming from virtually the first moment of Jacob's Ladder, but that still won't lessen the disturbing qualities of this film. Just don't read (or watch) An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge beforehand. Recommended.
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• A Remake of Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder Coming Up - June 28, 2013
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