The grandfather of "rubber reality" films10/10
The film begins with Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) and his platoon in Vietnam. When they're suddenly attacked, it's chaos, and the platoon appear to be the victims of some kind of chemical warfare. Jacob is stabbed in the stomach with a bayonet. Suddenly, without explanation, we see Jacob back in New York City. He's returned home from the war and he's trying to get his life back on track, but he keeps having odd experiences, seeing odd, frightening people, and having close calls with death. He cannot tell "dreams" from reality. What happened to him in Vietnam?
Jacob's Ladder is the grandfather of the "rubber reality" films that became so popular throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. The films with the most direct influence from Jacob's Ladder have appeared more recently-- Memento (2000), Mulholland Dr. (2001), The I Inside (2003), and The Butterfly Effect (2004). Less obvious, but also strongly influenced are films such as Abre los ojos (1997)/Vanilla Sky (2001), eXistenZ (1999), The Thirteenth Floor (1999) and The Matrix (1999), as well as films where the "rubber reality" is usually played more straight, such as The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Others (2001).
Of course, like any artwork, Jacob's Ladder has its precursors, too, such as the short story by Ambrose Bierce called "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", which was originally published in 1891 and later used as a basis of a silent film called The Spy (1929), and then a French short entitled La Riviere du hibou (literally "The River of the Owl"), the latter also airing as an episode of "The Twilight Zone" (1959). There is a very strong religious/mythical allegory running throughout the film--seen in everything from the Judeo/Christian nature of the character's names and the title of the film itself to character interests, as Jacob begins extensively studying demonology, the occult and so forth in an attempt to figure out what is happening to him. We are also treated to subtle connections with other works, such as philosopher Albert Camus' novel L'Etranger ("The Stranger"), which Jacob is reading in the film when we first see him on the subway, and there are many at least subtle stylistic and content precursors, such as Altered States (1980).
In light of the subsequent instantiations of the film's brand of rubberizing reality, as well as the more purely stylistic elements that have been used to often excellent effect in later films, such as the hyper kinetic figural motion that found its way into William Malone's films House on Haunted Hill (1999) and Fear dot Com (2002), Jacob's Ladder may seem relatively transparent or even tame. It's certainly easier to reach an interpretation for this than for a film like Mulholland Dr., where director David Lynch is purposefully obfuscatory. Still, Jacob's Ladder is one of the better films of its kind. Director Adrian Lyne achieved a continually offsetting creepiness that is rarely matched, and some scenes--such as the gurney journey through the increasingly dilapidated hospital corridors, could not possibly be topped.
Seen in the context of Lyne's other films Jacob's Ladder is all the more surprising, as the bulk of his career has been focused on hyper sensual and sexy dramas and thrillers--such as 9 1/2 Weeks (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), Indecent Proposal (1993), Lolita (1997) and Unfaithful (2002). Jacob's Ladder has its share of eroticism, however, mostly through the gorgeous and impassioned Jezebel (Elizabeth Pena), even though her most heated moment has her appropriately fraternizing with a demon.
Lyne's relatively straightforward approach to the film's elastic ontology, especially in conjunction with his tendency to be forthcoming and thorough in explaining his view of the plot (a predilection shared by scriptwriter Bruce Joel Rubin) may be unfortunate in that there is an interpretation of Jacob's Ladder accepted by a vast majority as the "right answer". That's a shame because there are countless possible readings of this material; differing views on everything from the general crux to the smallest minutiae. Part of the inherent beauty of the film is that any scene or set of scenes may equally be taken as the "real events", and any of the dialogue may be taken as providing clues to your preferred interpretation.
Robbins' performance is important to the film in that he is the focal point of almost every scene and has to convincingly play a vast range of emotions; he does so with finesse. The rest of the cast is noteworthy, even though their questionable nature gives them a lot of leeway in terms of verisimilitude and consistency.
But the real driving force that makes Jacob's Ladder such a success is its eeriness. This is a horror film after all, both on psychological and more apparent supernatural levels. Lyne continually and disconcertingly pulls the rug from beneath not only Jacob, but the audience as well, yet manages to never make a viewer feel lost, instead producing an eagerness to solve the "mystery" while you root for Jacob.