It’s easy to throw around the word “nightmarish” when discussing horror films, but Jacob’s Ladder genuinely deserves the label. Adrian Lyne captures the unstable start-stop-reverse-overturn rhythm of dreams, where content constantly shifts to keep up with a narrative that’s being prolonged and reinvented. The status quo shatters, then returns, then flips itself around, then shatters again, then returns again. Strangeness, significance, and sensory overload all creep in around the edges. Like David Lynch’s work, Jacob’s Ladder sometimes gives the impression that everything here is saturated with meaning–and it evokes, in ways both hellish and beautiful, what it would be like to live that way, even for a little while.
Vietnam vet Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) has the veneer of a normal life–a post office job, a girlfriend–but even scratching the surface reveals that his world is much deeper and darker than that. It’s a truth Jacob is only starting to let himself realize. Early on in the film, he compartmentalizes and shrugs off the various omens and horrors closing in on him. Hey, it’s the New York subway. You see a tentacle, you mind your own business and keep moving. Of course your girlfriend sometimes burns your photos of your dead son.
Slowly, though, Jacob starts to try to understand what’s happening to him–why he’s having these visions and near-death experiences, why people near him keep dying. That decision turns the slow, haphazard siege of horrors into an onslaught of violence and disorientation–much of it precipitated, appropriately, by a dangerously high fever that requires a frantic ice bath all his neighbors participate in, a kind of torturous, life-saving treatment that plunges him into a completely different world. Afterwards, the confrontations become more direct, seeming to offer not epiphanies but invalidation. The recurring themes present themselves more menacingly.
You’re dead, people tell him. The answer is in your past. Your past is a lie. You’re dead. This is your home now.
The film flirts with the conspiracy thriller genre–and there is an all-too-plausible conspiracy here–and its visuals are firmly entrenched in horror and surrealism. (A long sequence with Jacob wheeled through a bloodied hellhole of a hospital is especially grueling.) Its elusive sense of soul, however, is ultimately something more profound and more entrenched in an old-fashioned sense of mysticism. That’s what makes the film matter as something more than a now-somewhat-familiar twist or even a parade of striking, dread-filled images. “Dreamlike,” like “nightmarish,” easily applies–but while “dreamlike” is sometimes used more as a warning, a heads-up that things won’t make sense, that’s not really the case here. What Jacob’s Ladder gets right about dreams isn’t just their feel or aesthetic but their purpose and process. It feels like it’s reminding you of why we dream in the first place.
Jacob’s Ladder is streaming on Paramount Plus.