Filmmaker Firsts: Adrian Lyne

#29: Jacob’s Ladder (1990) – dir. Adrian Lyne

Seven of the eight films that Adrian Lyne directed between 1980 and 2002 are focused on sex: Foxes (1980), Flashdance (1983), 9½ Weeks (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), Indecent Proposal (1993), Lolita (1997) and Unfaithful (2002) all use the allure of sexuality as the selling point. A look at the taglines from the posters makes that plain enough: “Daring to do it!” (Foxes), “Desire. Infatuation. Obsession.” (9½ Weeks), “A husband. A wife. A millionaire. A proposal.” (Indecent Proposal), “A forbidden love. An unthinkable attraction. The ultimate price.” (Lolita), etc. Somewhere in between lies Jacob’s Ladder, a psychological drama occasionally dipping into the realm of horror in its tale of a Vietnam vet, Jacob Singer (played by Tim Robbins), who finds the border between waking life and memories dissolving as his reality starts to overflow with violence, villains, nonhuman beasts and other disturbing images. His wartime experiences blend with his present-day self until he is convinced that the U.S. Army must have used some mind-altering drug on him that is only just beginning to manifest its symptoms. While unfortunately I knew the film’s big twist thanks to a screenwriting class I took a few years ago in which I had to read portions of Jacob’s Ladder’s script, I still found the film a rewarding and thought-provoking experience. A large part of that has to do with Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay, but I also think that Tim Robbin’s performance, Maurice Jarre’s score, Tom Rolf’s editing and Jeffrey L. Kimball’s cinematography contribute as much as (if not more than) Lyne’s direction.

There is a great scene early on that shows Jacob trapped in the Bergen Street train station. Anyone who lives in New York, or anyone who enjoys seeing New York captured in a historical document, will be intrigued by Jacob’s tense journey across the tracks and his fruitless attempts to leave through exits on either platform. Every door he finds is chained and locked.

One of the most well-known scenes in the film shows Jacob slowly descending into feverish madness as he witnesses – or thinks he witnesses – his girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) dancing and having sex with some kind of devil figure. The creature’s tail, wings, horns and other appendages surround Jezzie and appear to enter or merge with her body as she writhes on the dance floor. As the surreal scene progresses Jacob loses control over his own body, eventually dropping to the floor in involuntary convulsions. The way that Tom Rolf edited the scene, zipping back and forth between Jacob and Jezzie with manic flashes from strobe lights, creates exactly the kind of atmosphere that leaves both the protagonist and the audience in a daze.

The film benefits from having a large supporting cast of character actors. Danny Aiello has a wonderful role as Louis, Jacob’s chiropractor, who dispenses wisdom and philosophy along with his physical therapy techniques. Other actors who have parts in the film include Matt Craven, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Alexander, Patricia Kalember, Eriq La Salle, Ving Rhames, Brent Hinkley, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jan Saint (as the most terrifying Santa Claus you’ll ever see), Kyle Gass, Lewis Black (yes, that Lewis Black!), Antonia Rey, Becky Ann Baker, Billie Neal and an uncredited Macaulay Culkin.

I love this shot since it is so reminiscent of the rainy, smoky streets in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), another film about a Vietnam veteran with a questionable past and psychological issues (although it is never clear if Travis Bickle has suffered from traumas like those that Jacob Singer has endured). I highly recommend Jacob’s Ladder, but it is not for the faint of heart. It is a film both haunted and haunting, the former for the main character and the latter for us as we struggle through understanding Jacob’s nightmarish world as much as he does. This is a film that will make you question and reexamine the events of your life.

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