Nam, 1971. A platoon of GIs is making fun of the one that they call Prof, presumably because he wears glasses. In amongst the merry banter, someone senses that an incoming attack is imminent. Suddenly shots are fired everywhere, blood is flowing – it’s carnage.
Cut to: a subway train in Brooklyn. Prof is now in civvies, and has fallen asleep with a book in his hand. He asks around whether he’s missed his stop, but no-one seems to understand him. As it happens, the next stop is his, but when he tries to leave the station, everything is locked up. There seems to be a functioning exit on the other platform, so he picks his way across the tracks through the rats and pools of dirty water. Suddenly, a train comes out of nowhere. He only escapes by lying on the floor and letting the train roll over him. As he stares into the carriage, none of the passengers has a face.
Prof’s real name is Jacob, or Jake, and is played by a very young Tim Robbins. He now lives with his Latina girlfriend Jezzie (short for Jezebel). Jezzie spends half her time with her top off, which must be for artistic reasons, because you wouldn’t have an Adrian Lyne film salaciously leering at women for no reason, would you?
Jacob now has a PhD, but he works in the post office with Jezzie because he’s tired of academia. He is plagued by flashbacks – sometimes of Nam, although he can never remember exactly happened on That Night. But we are also transported to scenes with his ex-wife and their 3 children, including the one who died. You get the feeling that they broke up after Jacob’s PTSD or whatever it is made him too much of a handful.
It isn’t just the flashbacks. Jacob is walking down a street and a car chases him and tries to run him down. The driver and passengers also have no faces. He tries to visit his old psychologist, but the hospital deny all knowledge of him. When he notices that the receptionist has a strange hole in the top of her head, security guards chase him and try to capture him.
Jacob attends a party where a palm reader tells him that he is already dead. He contracts a fever which apparently can only be cured by knocking on the doors of all the neighbours in the middle of the night and covering him with ice cubes. And every so often, when things start to get out of hand, Jacob’s angelic chiropractor appears from nowhere to save him.
A former member of his platoon dies mysteriously. At the wake, he discovers that his old comrades in arms are suffering similar flashbacks and psychic incidents, feeling that they are being chased by demons. They contact a lawyer, planning to file a joint suit against the army for – they’re not sure what really, but something strange is happening. Then the others drop out for no real reason.
Parts of Jacob’s Ladder don’t really add up, even if we take over half the scenes as being the product of Jacob’s addled mind which aren’t supposed to make sense. Some loose threads are just left hanging there, without any attempt to explain what just happened. And if we’re not spooked already, the appearance of an uncredited Macauley Culkin and George from Seinfeld only add to our sense of disorientation.
And yet, somehow, it just about all holds together. Maybe it’s the presence of Robbins, looking like a Radar O’Reilly who’s somehow doubled in height. Maybe it’s the confidence of a film that is perfectly aware that it is batshit crazy, but is just daring us to do anything about it. Instinctively, it feels like an easy cop out to blame everything on psychedelics handed out by the army to make soldiers more hostile, but the internal logic kind of works.
Of course it has many of the drawbacks of Hollywood films. The women’s roles are minimal. The real victims of the Vietnam war were not the Viet Cong, still less Vietnamese citizens, neither of whom is allowed a speaking part. The greatest tragedy was felt by Our Boys. But even here, the film is clearly anti-military, despite its pro-soldier stance.
Jacob’s Ladder is not without problems, but at least it tries. Go on, give It a go.