He put up a hell of a fight.
Jacob’s Ladder is considered something of a classic, if maybe a minor one, but I’d never seen it until I caught up with it on Blu-Ray. It’s the story of a Vietnam vet, obviously suffering from PTSD, played to perfection by Tim Robbins. But is the PTSD responsible for the horrifying demonic visions, for the way reality seems to slip and slide around him? Or are forces more evil at work? The script is very good; I fear that the impact of the film was perhaps blunted a bit by the fact that I, more or less, knew the twist at the end. But it’s still really stunning, incredibly dark and haunting. So haunting in fact that I set down for a second viewing and found myself re-evaluating the movie in a more positive way because of it. It was intriguing enough on a first viewing, but the second really opened themovie up, maybe because I was able to not obsess over knowing the ending and live more in the moment to moment experience. That experience is undeniably intense and visceral. Robbins' performance is a genuine star-making turn; he’s able to portray the descent into darkness to perfection. It’s a raw, incredibly wrenching performance. There’s a really stunning twenty to thirty minutes that revolves around a nightmarish party scene & the immediately following treatment of Jake for an extreme fever that is really upsetting, quite frightening and visceral to a really intense level and Robbins is nothing short of genius in that sequence. Elizabeth Pena is quite good in a supporting role & Pruitt Taylor Vince, you know, the guy who does that unsettling thing with his eye movement, has a great scene with Robbins in a bar. Look for Jason Alexander as a slimy lawyer and Ving Rhames in a very small, but impressive, turn. Lyne’s direction, I think, really sells the movie and makes it the disturbing experience it is. His direction of the party scene I already mentioned is just incredible as is a later, harrowing sequence in a hospital. Lyne mentions on the blu-ray that the original script was much more traditional in its imagery, presenting classic visions of horned devils and hell-flames. Lyne wisely eschewed that for a much more compelling vision in which we see the horrors only in quick flashes, but those horrors still impact deeply in a really creepy way. Lyne pioneered a technique that’s now something of a standby in horror movies, in which a person’s head will shake at an unnaturally fast speed, blurring the features; it’s really effective here. And there are other quick flash images that are even simpler. One of the more unsettling for me was the use of a face draped with thin gauze. This white, featureless face with a gaping mouth creeped me right out. The film has some problems. Lyne took out two upsetting scenes in the final thirty minutes because he felt it was pushing the audience’s tolerance for the horror. He might be right, but unfortunately it means the movie kind of coasts to a stop instead of building to an intense climax. Though the final scene is a nihilistic knockout, exactly the quiet capper we need. I feel like it might have worked better if it had come after a maelstrom of a climax, but Lyne obviously felt differently. And there are a few sequences that drag, despite the strength of the performances. But on the whole, after a second viewing, it’s a really striking film. Great story, brilliant performances, smart, canny directing and, ultimately, an extremely dark tone add up to a really disturbing and harrowing movie. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – an astounding lead performance by Tim Robbins, disturbing horror designs and great, unsettling direction by Lyne add up to a harrowing film, only occasionally dull. 3 ½ stars.