207. Jacob’s Ladder

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Movie: Jacob’s Ladder

Release Date: November 2, 1990

Director: Adrian Lyne

Starring: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello.

Tag Lines: “The most frightening thing about Jacob Singer’s nightmare is that he isn’t dreaming.”

Relevance: After missing ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ in theaters, I rented it sometime over my Spring or Summer break from college in 1991. I was expecting a horror movie. What I got was a film that left me emotionally drained and pondering its meaning for weeks.

Powerfully written, directed and acted, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ seemed part art house film and part character study and nothing like I had ever seen before. Sure, I got the horror film I thought I rented, but I also got a psychological thriller and dramatic movie with very disturbing images and an emotional ending that I just wasn’t expecting. It was one of the first movies of my early adulthood that actually left me speechless. It also got me thinking a lot about death.

Raised strict Catholic, the ideas of good and evil and heaven and hell were nothing new to me. Those concepts I totally understood. If you were good, you die and go to heaven. If you were bad, you die and go to hell. Pretty simple, right? What no one ever talked about though and what I didn’t have a clue about was death itself. Of course it happened around me, but it was never discussed. It was one of those topics that no one wanted to talk about and everyone avoided at all costs. As a then twenty year old, I came to the conclusion that everyone had a fear of dying, even those that are comforted by the ideas of faith and life with God behind the pearly gates.

‘Jacob’s Ladder’ broadened my outlook on all things death. I wouldn’t say I became obsessed with it, I just became more aware of it. I started reading a lot of books in my spare time about the science of death and what happens to the human body when it dies. I also read a lot of books about spirituality and how all religions, not just Catholics, deal with the idea of crossing over and the afterlife. I always liked the idea of ghosts, being a huge horror fan and all, but I started learning more about the paranormal life. I wasn’t obsessed, I don’t think, but I was fascinated and I loved engaging in conversations about all things death with anyone that would engage.

It’s probably odd for some people to understand, but for me art really makes me ponder life. I am the type of person that could hear a song and burst into tears or watch a movie and start thinking about the meaning of life. It’s just the way I am built and I am easily triggered. Always was and always will be. ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ was definitely one of those movies that triggered my diving into death. It is a movie whose visuals and meanings have stayed with me for decades.

Today’s Thoughts: “The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you…They’re freeing your soul. So, if you’re frightened of dying and…you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.”

In my humble opinion, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ remains one of the most engrossing horror movies ever made. More a psychological thriller to me than quote-unquote horror, its dark, haunting, surreal and heartbreaking tale is still resonating with me and probably will for a few days after watching it today. Thirty years after its release, the film remains a captivating watch.

Under the helm of the brilliant Adrian Lyne, the cast is top notch. Tim Robbins is really superb in the role of Jacob Singer. You can see the turmoil, confusion, sadness and despair in his eyes in every single moment on screen. It really is a remarkable performance. Elizabeth Peña and Danny Aiello, who will always be Madonna’s father to me (if you don’t know what I am talking about, look it up), are equally engaging in the film. I somehow forgot that Jason Alexander and Macaulay Culkin were even in this film. 1990 was a pretty big year for both of them and both give great performances here albeit small.

I should have known that Bruce Joel Rubin was the writer of this film. He is one of my favorite screenwriters of all time and his stories and words always leave me in a state of thought and wonderment. This is his second of four films on my list of most influential movies of all time (see 252. Deep Impact for his first). He really knows how to dive into the arena of death and its many interesting facets. His films have made me laugh, cry and most importantly think, especially about things we necessarily don’t want to think about, our inevitable demise.

Even knowing the outcome of the film, I couldn’t help but feel exhausted after watching ‘Jacob’s Ladder.’ Apparently there was a remake that was produced last year which I did not see. With a 5% score on Rotten Tomatoes, I’ll probably skip it. I am sure, even if it is a decent movie, it won’t even come close to the brilliance of the original, a movie I highly recommend. However, that recommendation comes with an asterisk. That is, make sure you are emotionally ready to dive into a deep conversation with yourself about light and dark, good and evil and life and death after you watch it.

Ways to Watch: Pluto TV, Google Play. YouTube, Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes, DVD Availability.

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