Saigon, New York

Saigon, New York June 17, 2024

Jacob’s Ladder
Source: Picryl
Public Domain

I found Jacob’s Ladder (1990) when I was too young. I only knew that it was scary. To me, it had no plot. Some war of which I was dimly aware. A scene reminiscent of that cancelled episode of Pokémon (1997-Present), the one that induced seizures. Jake (Tim Robbins) was unhappy. He was scared.

Now, I know he is a PhD working at the Post Office. He discusses Meister Eckhart with his cherubic chiropractor. The job market has been so bad that I too considered serving in that noblest of public offices—the USPS. I chopped Meister Eckhart out of my dissertation. I’ve published on him before. I have not—thank God—fought in Vietnam, and the psychoses I have endured had nothing to do with paranoiac episodes of BZ exposure or the life beyond death.

Still, I remained terrified. Jacob’s Ladder is the rare kind of movie that never lets up. New York is frightening, a gray, dilapidated wasteland of demons and government agents. Anyone who has wanted to leave a party will recognize the overstimulation—if not the hallucinations—Jake experiences during a shindig at a friend’s apartment. Which version of reality is happening? Which is he making up to cope with zombified life? Is he a family man? Or is he dating a woman named Jezebel?

The movie works so long as it keeps us in that paranoid state. It doesn’t matter what’s real and what’s fake. What kept me invested was the constant stimulation—the fear. Few films capture the degradation of a human psyche as well as Jacob’s Ladder.

Which is why the ending is such a shame. It descends into explanation—the movies tell us what it all means, left with one explanation. In other words, everything hangs on a twist, a final confirmation of what has and what has not been real (though in reality all is invalidated). This felt doubly wrong. On the one hand, the film deals in atmosphere. What matters is how the character feels, how we feel. On the other, this decision reduces Jacob’s Ladder to a matter of plot. It ends on exactly the wrong note.

Still, nothing can fully undo that first 90 minutes or so. The fear, the slowly building atmosphere of terror—a 90s film about the 70s in the spirit of a 70s paranoid thriller. Jacob’s Ladder works, deserves to be remembered—few movies capture the mounting terror of psychoses so well.

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