For a movie billed as psychological horror and the inspiration for Silent Hill, Jesus Christ would Jacob's Ladder play well on the Hallmark channel. Less than five minutes of editing would plummet this flick from a R rating to a PG, and that's holistically, not just in terms of "mature" content. The movie screams PG TV movie through and through; the embarrassingly sappy, melodramatic tone, paper-thin symbolism, and overflowing self-explanation are perfectly suited to viewers under 12 or over 70. In fact, it was basically an episode of 7th Heaven - and I can say that without ever having seen 7th Heaven.
|Ah, the special effects budget of an X-Files episode. What a delight.|
Here's a recap, and yeah, "spoilers" abound, but since I figured out the entire plot in the first five minutes, I don't feel that bad about it. Especially because I'm telling you not to watch this movie. PLEASE don't watch this movie. So the film opens in what appears to be Vietnam, and oh shit, just as helicopters pass overhead, Tim Robbins' squad is gettin' tore up by some invisible foe. It's Predator all over again! Then Tim Robbins gets bayonetta'd by the camera man! Holy shit - the camera man carries a bayonet?! Cut to normal life, implicitly post-war. Tim Robbins is now going by the name "Jacob", and he has a girlfriend and an ex-wife and some kids, but one of his kids is Macaulay Culkin. No way! Turns out the kid got dead after a farcical mistake left him home unsupervised at Christmas. Some burglars broke in, and though he showed great ingenuity in death-trapping his house, he was tragically caught by one of his own traps and impaled by a life-sized Michael Jordan cutout. Jacob blames himself for his son's death (rightfully so - he was the one who purchased the Michael Jordan cutout) and is broken to pieces by guilt every time he sees his family or Christmas. To cope, he starts dating a demon who takes off her shirt with improbable frequency, then hires famous child-murder lawyer Jason Alexander to prosecute himself for the child-murder. Someone's car blows up, crosses keep showing up where they're least expected (on a rosary, for instance), and Jacob gets demonic brain surgery. An angel is his chiropractor, but the movie says that angels and demons are the same thing, so ??? on that. Some commentary on the medical field, I presume. Then Jake and Macaulay ride a bicycle-made-for-two up the stairs to Heaven, just in time for a Vietnam surgeon to proclaim them both dead.
What makes me sad is that Ebert ate this shit up. He writes of a conversation he had with fellow critics shortly after the movie's close: "Was it all a flashback - or a flashforward? What was real, and what was only in the hero's mind? Are even the apparently "real" sequences the product of his imagination?" I dunno Ebert, did you listen to the fucking dialogue? They spend the last half hour of the film explicitly answering every single one of your questions in exposition - not to mention any other philosophical query the early scenes may have posed. Jacob's Ladder tells us: yes there is a Heaven. Yes we are reunited with our dead family. Angels and demons are only a product of our own inner conflict. It doesn't matter if it's all madeupsville, because in context it answers every question it poses. It's such a fucking ridiculous fantasy that I found myself wondering when the tie-in self-help book was coming out.
|Perhaps Silent Hill took some very slight cues from this visual design of the hospital scene, which comprises the only ~3 minutes of the movie that even attempt to effect a creepy tone|
Ladder has no clue what kind of movie it wants to be, like the writers had eight different ideas and couldn't figure out any way to stretch one to feature length, so instead strung them together sequentially. Combining a war movie with a post-war psychological tragedy is a classic technique (The Deer Hunter), but throwing in a marital drama, legal thriller, and conspiracy mystery is way over the top. The contradiction of all of these styles particularly surfaces in that Jacob's conflict completely transforms on a scene-to-scene basis. The resolution leads us to believe the movie was about his son's death, which leaves Vietnam as nothing more than a plot device to kill Jacob. Except that he spends a good half hour trying to sue the government about what happened in the war. Except that Jason Alexander says fuck off and the lawsuit goes nowhere. Except that a scientist shows up to tell Jacob what happened anyway. Except that a chiropractor tells him it's all the afterlife and this is all made up. Except WHY IS THERE A FUCKING MYSTERY ABOUT HOW HE GOT KILLED IF IT'S ALL MADE UP??? HOW IS HE GOING TO SOLVE IT IN HIS DREAM/AFTERLIFE-WORLD? The filmmakers had no answer to that question, but they didn't feel like rewriting their ending.
This seems like a nitpick, but is emblematic of the meaninglessness of the entire film: I was completely baffled by the late scene in which a scientist appears in Jacob's dream-world to explain what happened on that fateful day in Viet Cong. The enemy was invisible because there was no enemy! Jacob's squad was killing themselves after being drugged with an experimental chemical called "the Ladder". Forget the explanation for a second - what the fuck is the appearance of this scientist implying? We know Jacob's entire post-war reality is a figment of his imagination. This is painstaking explained in at least six different locations. So the movie logic clearly dictates that this scientist's exposition is a fabrication - or that Jacob somehow subconsciously knew what had happened, which is just stupid. So Jacob has made up this scientist figure and thus also made up the story about the "Ladder" drug which resulted in his death. At this point in his hallucination, he's also already aware that he's in some kind of afterlife, so even he should immediately know this isn't real. So how is this a point of closure for him? As a matter of fact, why does it matter at all? Jake's conflict was about the meaninglessness of death, so swooping in at the ending to make up a meaning for his death completely defeats his entire quest. This scientist guy isn't real, he doesn't have a motivation - he's Jacob's own creation. So why does he wait til a dramatic moment to jump in with this made up story? Just - this is so fucking frustrating to me. That is absolutely atrocious script-writing. And these aren't the metaphysical geospatial inquiries that left Ebert musing - this is just a case of a movie contradicting itself in an insoluble fashion.
Greg can attest that I spent the entire movie complaining about how sitcom-y the dialogue is. It's brutally unbearable - pair a laugh-track with the tepid sarcasm and textbook character relationships, and this would be an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Example: Jacob and his wife lie in bed with the window open. Jacobs says "will you close the window", his wife responds "the cold air is healthy", and Jacob rolls over, frowns, and says to the camera in his Woody Allen-est voice: "Getting pneumonia is healthy? I'm gonna die tomorrow and this is healthy!" That's not characterization, it's a punchline. Fucking Christ.
Tim Robbins' performance doesn't do us any favors either. The rest of the characters are passable (Jason Alexander is a decent actor - he pulls off a believably frustrated lawyer), but Robbins doesn't seem to know how to look troubled or distraught. Maybe he just makes weird faces IRL, but that doesn't help that he looks like he's suppressing a smile/laughter when he's supposed to be freaking out. THIS is his fucking "scared" face:
He totally sucks at going insane. Nicolas Cage knows how to lose his mind. Tim Robbins' take on it is way too grounded and knowing - it seems like he's pleasantly surprised by everything. And when he tries to get mad, it's just embarrassing. He's not someone whose anger you could ever take seriously, at least judging by the scene where he lets loose on Jason Alexander. I don't know if this is totally Robbins' fault, as he should never have been cast in this role.
So if you like shallow feel-good melodramas with zero intellectual depth starring Tim Robbins, watch Shawshank Redemption. But if you've already worn out your Shawshank VHS, I'm sure Jacob's Ladder will go over just fine at your nursing home's next movie night.