The Downward Spiral: A Jacob’s Ladder review.


Year: 1990.

Directed by: Adrian Lyne.

Starring: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, Jason Alexander

Plot: Jacob Singer is a Vietnam war veteran, injured in the line of duty, he now lives his life as a postal worker but is troubled by disturbing visions. It is post-traumatic stress or something more sinister? 

Up to the time of this film’s release, director Adrian Lyne could seemingly do no wrong commercially speaking. His 3 films prior, Flashdance, 9 1/2 weeks and Fatal Attraction were all massive box office successes, playing on simple and easy to grasp formulas that equated to huge profits. With Jacob’s Ladder, Lyne wished to present a much more thoughtful and philosophical prospect to his audience.

Touching heavily upon biblical, literary and artistic references, Jacob’s Ladder was a brave film to present to the world after his much more safe and commercially viable offerings from the 1980’s. Touching upon such subjects as The Vietnam War, post-traumatic stress, surreal horror, even taking influence from the work of painter Francis Bacon in the aesthetics of Jacob’s increasingly horrific visions, Jacob’s Ladder presents itself as a powerful, thoughtful and intense exploration of mortality and what lies beyond.

Bringing together a cast that includes Tim Robbins, who up until that time was more know for his comedic roles, here gives the role of Jacob Singer a real humanity and sensitivity, terrified, confused and angry at a system that seems to have left him and others like him behind, a real world plight faced by many in the aftermath of that horrific war. Some great support is given by the late Elizabeth Peña as his stressed and beleaguered girlfriend, straggling to cope with Jacob’s outbursts when plagued by his visions. The eagle-eyed viewer may also spot early screen roles by the likes of Macaulay Culkin as Jacob’s deceased son and Tenacious D member Kyle Gass in a bit part.

The visual effects are very much a showcase in the film, many of which practically shot and effectively creepy and disturbing, particularly the deformed creatures that plague Jacob’s visions. Amongst its more traditional horror was the prospect of real world atrocity, some controversial claims were also made by the film levelled at the US army and the possibility of narcotic experimentation on troops during the Vietnam conflict which opens up new levels of very real moral quandary within the film’s many more fantastical subtexts. Jacob’s Ladder is a film that leaves itself open to many forms of interpretation as to its meaning. There is the obvious biblical reference in the film’s title, the “dream of a meeting place between heaven & earth” to paraphrase the book of Genesis. The film does maintain an almost dreamlike quality throughout its duration with Jacob’s visions, his memories of Vietnam, his anger at the army and himself for his sons death almost like the film is Jacob’s own version of purgatory where he is punishing himself for his own perceived misdoings. Suffice to say, it is a film you could sit down and dissect afterward and the conversations would be lengthy.

Jacob’s Ladder isn’t going to be for everyone. It is a bleak, oppressive, haunting, depressingly sad and yet powerfully delivered film which acts as a thoughtful meditation on humanity. It is the kind of film that stays with you long after the final reveal and makes you heart hang a little heavier though that is not to say that it isn’t a good film, it is a very good film, it is one however that may not be so palatable to those of a more sensitive disposition.

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