Jacob's Ladder (1998)

Category: Psychological thriller/horror

Have you ever had a nightmare that felt real? What if you couldn’t tell between the nightmare and the reality?

The film starts off with Jacob Singer, US infantryman serving in Vietnam. Suddenly the unit comes under a vicious attack and many of Jacob’s fellow soldiers are killed while others, seemingly overcome by the brutal reality of warfare, start to exhibit strange behavior and suffer from seizures and convulsions. Understandably terrified, Jacob tries to make his escape, running from the battle; not making it far before being stabbed and joining the casualties of his Division.

The story then fast forwards to 1975. After his service it seems that Jacob has moved on in life and is working for the US Postal Service. He has a girlfriend, a New York apartment and lives a modest life. But things are not all well with Jacob Singer after the war. He is beset with visions and hallucinations. Terrifying monsters and visions of his family before he left for Vietnam. Feelings of loss and regret excellently portrayed. As the story progresses the viewer is left wondering what is real, what is a product of Jacobs fractured mind after the terrors of war? This feeling of unease grows as events unfold around him; a theme continued throughout the story.

The movie whisks the viewer along a rollercoaster of panic, paranoia and despair as we follow Jacob after returning home. Often Jacob seeks help but, as in a bad dream, its always just out of reach. Suffering from hallucinations and blackouts Jacob cannot seem to understand the world around him and as the film develops it forces the viewer to question everything around Jacob. Many themes are prevalent in this masterpiece of cinema, from religious themes of damnation to the limited understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The classic conspiracy the the USA was drugging its troops in war to make them better soldiers receives a sly mention and insinuation. Maybe the terrifying events surrounding Jacob Singer are the product of PTSD or possibly side effects from being secretly drugged by shady government forces. Viewers may also question if the infamous “Agent Orange” is responsible. Maybe Jacob really is being attacked by supernatural forces.

In between flashbacks to the horror of the jungles in Vietnam to the awful visions of his present, Jacob Singer tries to find the line between what is real and what is not. As the viewer, we are no more wiser than Jacob himself. Just as Jacob cannot tell, neither can we. Can the viewer trust that the apparitions are real or he people who seem normal? As this film runs toward its conclusion questions mount up and the viewer is continually guessing until Jacob’s story is resolved.

Just when help arrives, in the form of former platoon mates it seems to add further complications to Jacob’s mind. Despite the claims of other survivors to be experiencing similar visions and nightmares this leads to more doubt and more questions. Strange things happen that conspire to isolate Jacob and push him further from the truth he seeks, beset with new visions and monsters. Jacob falls further into the rabbit hole of his delusions as reality, hallucinations and despair mix. From shadowy people lurking in the background to monsters, Jacob struggles to escape as the film moves toward its shocking finale. 

This film is an epic journey exploring various themes that many people dealt with in the years following the Vietnam War and provides probably one of the most compelling allegories to the confusion, paranoia and fear felt by those that came home to a world completely alien to them.

From start to finish Jacob moves from questioning uncertainty to terror to realization. The directing, acting and cinematography combine to include the viewer masterfully in this story. Jacobs Ladder combines some of the best categories in cinema to produce a involving story which expertly players with the viewers emotions. Each action and revelation adds another layer to the mystery of Jacob Singer.

Fans of both thriller and horror will be mesmerised by the unfolding story from the jungles of Vietnam to the seedy and dirty concrete jungle of New York and back and forth. Finding it impossible to tell the difference between mental health, reality, hallucinations and flashbacks. What is actually real? Is it the people staring at Jacob or the brief glimpses at monsters hiding among us?

Following the story of Jacob Singer is possibly the closest that many of us will experience to alternate realities and a terrifying vision of hell on Earth. What really brings this story to life is the amazing acting by Tim Robbins (Bull Durham, The Shawshank Redemption, Mystic River) who exudes paranoid fear mixed with determination to discover the truth along with the direction by Adrian Lyne (Flashdance, Fatal Attraction, Indecent proposal) who manages to capture the very essence of confusion and delirium and expose it for all to see.