Looking Back: Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay for “Jacob’s Ladder” was famous for being one of the most beloved but unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Big name directors and actors were lured to the project, then abandoned it, believing what Ruben created was brilliant but would never translate to the big screen. Rubin’s story, of a man named Jacob Singer who is haunted by daily glimpses of demons and monsters in his everyday life, offered a straight-faced, no-nonsense exploration of matters both spiritual and secular. The story was bold, challenging and, on paper, easy to read as a tonally difficult project. Enter Adrian Lyne, the director of slick, well-crafted films such as “Fatal Attraction, ” “Flashdance” and “9 and a Half Weeks,” who believed (correctly) that, in order for Rubin’s screenplay to work as a movie, the imagery of angels and demons in a modern setting needed to made interpretive, not literal. By making Rubin’s Dante-esque notions of Hell and Earth and the struggle for salvation more grounded and less f/x-heavy, “Jacob’s Ladder” became accessible and relatable, though no less impactful.

The tortured journey of Jacob Singer is all the more harrowing because we genuinely like him. As played by a young, boyish Tim Robbins, Singer is a sweet, long suffering Vietnam war veteran who genuinely does not deserve the relentless onslaught of anguish and mental torture he faces.

“Jacob’s Ladder” was a turning point for Tim Robbins, who was primarily known for comedies like “Bull Durham,” “Erik the Viking,” “Cadillac Man” and “Howard the Duck.” He brings neither movie star bravado nor a comic distance from the material. In fact, Robbins is so utterly vulnerable, sweet and relatable as Jacob, I can’t imagine the film working without him. He gives himself to every scene, committing to moments that would be challenging and painful for any actor.

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The film’s secret weapons are his co-stars, Elizabeth Pena and Danny Aiello. Pena, as Jacob’s girlfriend Jezebel, cannily portrays a duel nature to her mysterious character and is no less than sensational. The late Pena, who excelled in comedies and dramas, gave her best work here. This may sound like faint praise but I don’t mean it that way- Aiello is playing the most sympathetic, father-like chiropractor in cinema. His intimate therapy session scenes with Robbins are moving and a necessary break from the more grueling passages.

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“Jacob’s Ladder” is full of great scenes throughout that are mini-masterpieces, in both the ambition and execution: a late night walk through an empty subway station, the horrifying dance party transformation, the moment with the tell-tale penny shifting on the ground, the journey on the hospital gurney and Pena’s chilling close-up near the end, all fantastic sequences. Yet, the most extraordinary passage involves a bathtub and, what we hope, is the reveal of Jacob waking from a nightmare to be with the ones he loves. This portion, which features a pre-“Home Alone” Macaulay Culkin, is the emotional core of the movie and it’s a real heart breaker.

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I missed seeing this in the theater when it was released during the fall of 1990. Decades later, I caught a revival screening of “Jacob’s Ladder” in Denver. It made me extremely grateful to have missed seeing it in a movie theater when I was 13 years old, as I wouldn’t have been prepared for it. On the big screen, the film is overwhelmingly powerful, almost too much to take.

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Few movies have scared me as much as this one and the demands it makes on the audience (both the attention that must be paid and the scenes that are to be endured) will be too much for some. Yet, a film this terrific is easy to recommend, as it rewards our patience with a tale that, when all is revealed in the end, proves to be uncommonly compassionate. “Jacob’s Ladder” can be brutal but few films are this deeply committed to expressing the value of being present and grateful for life’s most irreplaceable moments. Horror films aren’t usually described as beautiful but this one most certainly is.



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