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Film review: Jacob's Ladder

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 6 1990 12:00 a.m. MST

"Jacob's Ladder" is a horror movie, but the intent here seems to be cerebral horror, attempting to challenge the audience with thought-provoking musings on life, death and something in between.

The film leads the audience on and uses red herrings to keep it off-kilter. But the story leads to exactly what you may predict in the opening moments. It just takes its time — and a few circuitous routes — getting there.

"Jacob's Ladder" is a hammerhead movie, one that bashes the audience to death with its jazzy technique.

The title character is Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a soft-spoken, easygoing Ph.D. who has settled for being a postal worker. He lives with someone who seems all wrong for him, a fireball named Jezebel (Elizabeth Pena), who also works at the post office.

Jacob is divorced, but still seems to love his former wife; he has two young children and mourns a third who died just before he went to Vietnam some 19 years earlier.

"Jezzie" isn't too understanding about all this, but seems to love him all the same. That love is being taxed severely, however, by Jacob's nightmares and hallucinatory flashbacks, which come at the darndest times.

The flashbacks all seem tied into his Vietnam experience and there are also visions of monsters and demons who seem to be chasing him. And what about those guys in the dark suits, sitting in dark cars bearing government plates.

Is this a government paranoia plot? Are there really people out to get him? And which life is the fantasy — is he really living with Jezebel or is he still with his wife and children? And is his youngest son really dead? And is Jacob's faithful chiropractor (Danny Aiello) really some kind of angel in disguise?

These are questions that come and go throughout "Jacob's Ladder," the first pro-chiropractic/Vietnam angst horror movie.

But instead of blending into a story that allows the audience to draw conclusions, the movie constantly jerks the audience back and forth, not with anything innovative but more often suggesting it may at any minute cop out on us.

And, depending on your way of thinking, maybe it does.

Director Adrian Lyne, who has given us such dubious fare as "Fatal Attraction" and "Nine 1/2 Weeks," pushes the darker elements of "Jacob's Ladder," with lots of disorienting shots and loud ambient sound. He effectively makes subways look ominous (an image that is also prevalent in screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin's other movie of the moment, "Ghost"), but that's hardly new. And since the entire film looks harsh and gray, it's more in keeping with the rest of this movie.

The performances are quite good, with Tim Robbins showing off a range that may surprise people who have only seen him as dim comic characters in "Bull Durham," "Cadillac Man" and "Eric the Viking." And Elizabeth Pena is appropriately fiery as his free-spirited girlfriend.

Too bad it's all in the service of something so vague and yet so overly familiar as "Jacob's Ladder."

From the biblical names of the characters to Pena parading around topless in their apartment to the gore on the floor of the Veteran's Hospital, this picture could use some lessons in subtlety and restraint. And so could Lyne and Rubin.

"Jacob's Ladder" is rated R for violence and gore, sex, nudity and profanity.