31 Days of Halloween 2016 #7 – Jacob’s Ladder: An Analysis
All horror twists owe something to Jacob’s Ladder. This movie is about death, obsessing and holding onto lost love ones, and the nature of memory. The movie itself is weird like a David Cronenberg movie, but it has a point. It’s not all in your face like M. Night Shyamalan, instead dealing with its various themes through experiences of trauma and hardship.
Tim Robbins plays his usual character the way he always plays his usual character, with a bit of reluctance and nativity. This doesn’t make his performance bad, it’s just the same as every other movie he’s done. He does have a range of emotion in this film but he’s supposed to, because his character is taken on a trippy exploration of memories. The script writer apparently read a newage book and spewed his new knowledge all over the page.
The Occurrence of Owl Creek Bridge has a big influence on this movie and Tibetan philosophy also has a hand in the plot. Owl is a short movie about a man who experiences a fleeting memory of reuniting with his wife, right before he’s hanged. Jacob’s Ladder is basically the same movie except more existential and trippy. The trippy parts are from HR Giger and other famous artists. What Jacob experiences comes out like a dream or a haunting image, burned into his mind.
The unconventional narrative structure puts people off and generally makes the plot confusing. The movie almost seems to embrace this like a farce, like when the doctors repeat what Jacob is saying, as if they are part of his subconscious. The doctor spells out the movie’s twist, as if to torment us with irony.
Jacob: Get me out of here.
Doctor: There is no here. You’ve been killed, remember?
Jacob’s Ladder is a cult classic and begins threatening us with deep themes right from the start. The movie begins in Vietnam, where we see soldiers sitting around waiting for orders. They appear worn out and tired. Some explosions make the soldiers react strangely, and Jacob runs off, escaping into the forest, until he is stabbed by a bayonet, thrusted into his midsection by an unknown figure. He wakes up on a subway, back home, and we are tricked into thinking what came before is just a memory. At this point, Jacob’s point of view is unreliable and most of what we see to explain the movie is not reliable either. There are many explanations thrown at us, but none of them are really the truth for what is happening to Jacob. I think later on, it can be assumed that it’s up to us to decide what is true.
After wandering through the subway, Jacob finds all exits locked up. He has to venture back down the tunnel to find his way, which is symbolism in itself. Most of the scene connects to death or symbolizes death in some way. Jacob later returns home, where he is living with Jezebel, who symbolizes sin. The most powerful symbolism is of his son, represented by the picture he constantly carries around and won’t ever let go of.
For one thing, even the ending where everything is explained is unreliable. During the last scene, Jacob takes a cab. Looking closely, the camera zooms in on the cab driver’s license, which is dated 1972. There is also a button which reads “Nixon Now”, which is the slogan of the Nixon re-election campaign in March of 1972. The Vietnam stuff at the beginning takes place in 1971, so it’s impossible for Jacob’s dream to contain information about 1972. Or is it?
The reveal at the end describes a conspiracy to explain the soldier’s behavior and Jacob’s death. It’s really just a MacGuffin. I think the only real explanation is given by Jacob’s chiropractor as he works on Jacob’s ailing back, telling him that the real Hell is what we can’t let go of. In other words, we create our own demons. Therefore, I think there is no absolute interpretation of Jacob’s Ladder, and the only consistent theme is the struggle of man to accept himself and his limitations.
Overall, this is a good movie. It’s layered so thick, it might be confusing, and can be watched in any number of ways, for entertainment or analysis. Generally, this movie is about memories and dealing with the human condition. When Jacob reaches Heaven or whatever, there’s no room for guilt or ego or anything. He’s finally at peace. Most of the movie itself is littered with false MacGuffins and strange diversions. However, like Jacob’s experiences, we can take anything we want from it.
31 Days of Halloween 2016
31. Young Frankenstein (1974)
30. Jason X (2001)
29. Cloverfield (2008)
28. The Monster Squad (1987)
27. Bad Moon (1996)
26. The Haunting (1963)
25. Splinter (2008)
24. Frenzy (1972)
23. Aggression Scale (2012)
22. The Exorcist III
21. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1963)
20. Silver Bullet (1985)
19. Joy Ride (2001)
18. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
The Funhouse (1981) by Tobe Hooper Shin Godzilla (2016)
16. Videodrome (1983)
15. Re-Animator (1985)
14. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
13. Cube (1997)
12. Evil Dead
11. Day of the Dead (1985)
Tales of Halloween (2015) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)
9. They Live (1988)
The Innocents (1961) Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966)
7. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
6. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
5. I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990)
4. Hatchet (2006)
3. The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
2. Halloween II
1. Silence of the Lambs