Director: Adrian Lyne
Screenplay by: Bruce Joel Rubin
Starring: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, Matt Craven, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Alexander, Patricia Kalember, Eriq La Salle, Ving Rhames, Macaulay Culkin
Country: USA
Running Time: 113 min
Year: 1990

The screenplay for Jacob’s Ladder was written by Bruce Joel Rubin back in 1980, supposedly based on both a dream the writer had and an out-of-body experience he’d been through on LSD. The script gained much praise in the industry but no one initially picked it up, likely due to how difficult it would be to handle the jumps in time and place.

However, as the decade neared its end, director Adrian Lyne came across Jacob’s Ladder, after asking his producer for a great script that hadn’t been made yet. Lyne was riding high after his Oscar nomination for Fatal Attraction but wanted something fresh to make after being presented with numerous unappealing offers.

After some pre-production troubles, the film was finally made and released in 1990 to mixed reviews and an initially strong opening weekend at the box office that soon tailed off. The film has since, however, gained somewhat of a cult following.

To tap into this audience, Imprint are releasing the film on Blu-ray with a heap of extra bits and pieces. I hadn’t seen the film before but it’s been something that has intrigued me ever since I saw the striking poster art as a kid. As such, I jumped at the chance of reviewing the film and my thoughts follow.

Jacob’s Ladder follows the story of Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam War veteran who is haunted by vivid and terrifying hallucinations and flashbacks. As these become more frequent and intense, he begins to question his sanity and his grip on reality. It’s not even clear which world he’s living in – his life with his sexy girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) or that with his wife Sarah (Patricia Kalember), from whom he believes to be divorced in the other reality. With his flashbacks being so vivid too, perhaps he’s still back in ‘Nam?

He’s also troubled by the memory of one of his sons, Gabe (Macaulay Culkin, in an early role), who was killed in a car accident before the war.

As Jacob tries to unravel the mystery of his hallucinations, he discovers a dark and sinister conspiracy that threatens to consume him. He is plagued by visions of demonic creatures and faceless figures, as well as disturbing memories of his time in Vietnam. As his grip on reality slips further, Jacob must confront his past and his present in a terrifying battle for his soul.

As mentioned, Jacob’s Ladder is a film I’d long had my eye on but, for whatever reason, not gotten around to. I’m glad I finally did because I thought it was fantastic.

Lyne and his crew expertly mess with your mind, as you try to figure out what is real and what isn’t. It effectively puts you in the head of our protagonist, delivering a truly terrifying depiction of PTSD as well as a haunting treatise on life and death. It’s not a subtle one, perhaps, with its nightmarish imagery and frequent biblical references, but it’s handled masterfully enough to give a great impact.

Everything we watch can be questioned too. Yes, many films have played with this balance between dreams and reality but Jacob’s Ladder really goes to town with it, knocking you for six on several occasions.

It’s stylishly shot, as you’d expect from Lyne (though credit must also go to DOP Jeffrey L. Kimball). The different realities have subtly distinctive looks that play to their strengths and moods. The Vietnam flashbacks have an earthy quality and use handheld camerawork in their intense battle sequences. The ‘present day’ Elizabeth Peña reality has a naturalistic, gritty but moody look and the scenes with Sarah and their children are warm and comforting.

Most striking visually, however, are the hallucinations. The ‘demons’ were written in the script as traditional, religious symbols, horns and all, but Lynne took inspiration from contemporary art and photography to create something more abstract and unsettling. The faceless figures Jacob frequently sees are particularly terrifying.

The cast must be given credit for the film’s success too. Tim Robbins, in particular, is superb in this tremendously difficult role, displaying great vulnerability and pathos. Robbins was better known for his comedic roles at the time, which is actually why Lynne chose him. The film was so dark and bleak that he felt the lead needed to have some kind of charm and subtle levity to keep the audience watching. This approach works a treat, helping the film perfectly balance terrifying horror with touching, sensitive drama.

Also backing Robbins up is a strong cast of supporting players, such as Peña, Danny Aiello, Matt Craven, Jason Alexander, Eriq La Salle, Ving Rhames and even a young Macaulay Culkin, who’s surprisingly uncredited, despite having an important and fairly sizable role.

* SPOILERS * The end could perhaps be seen as an ‘it’s all a dream’ copout but there are more layers to it than usual and there are still seeds of doubt as to whether what we’re seeing at the end is real or not, to allow it to work. Also, the twist is actually hinted at quite a lot in the film, preventing it from coming too far out of left field. It’s not overly obvious on first viewing though, as there are several ideas as to what’s happening being bounced around. On subsequent viewings though, the clues in names and lines are maybe a little blunt. * END OF SPOILERS *

Overall though, Jacob’s Ladder is a haunting, often terrifying look at trauma. It might play it large in places but it remains deeply affecting. Strikingly well-produced and brilliantly performed, it’s a remarkable piece of work that will stay with you for a long time.


Jacob’s Ladder is out now on Blu-Ray in Australia, released by Via Vision as part of their Imprint Collection. The transfer looks great, with wonderfully natural colours and grain structure. I’ve used screengrabs throughout this review to give you an idea of what it looks like, though the images are compressed. There are two options for audio – 5.1 or 2.0. I went with the former and thought it sounded very good – effectively textured with no flaws.

Special Features and Technical Specs:

– 1080p High-definition presentation on Blu-ray
– Audio commentary by director Adrian Lyne
– NEW Audio Commentary by film historian and host of The Projection Booth Mike White
– Building Jacob’s Ladder – featurette
– 3 Additional Scenes (with optional commentary by director Adrian Lyne)
– Archival interviews with director Adrian Lyne, actor Tim Robbins and actress Elizabeth Peña
– NEW Prepare the Way – interview with screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin
– NEW Where is the Ladder? – the locations of Jacob’s Ladder
– NEW Hidden in Plain Sight: Spirituality in Jacob’s Ladder – video essay by film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
– NEW Something’s Wrong With My Head: Vietnam War Trauma and Jacob’s Ladder – video essay by film historian Josh Nelson
– Teaser and Theatrical Trailers
– Original Aspect Ratio 1:85:1
– Audio English DTS-HD 5.1 Surround + LPCM 2.0 Stereo
– Optional English HOH subtitles
– Limited Edition slipcase on the first 1500 copies with unique artwork

Lyne’s commentary provides an illuminating breakdown of the production, his inspirations and intentions. It’s a little low energy and there are a lot of gaps, particularly in the second half, but it makes for interesting listening if you have the patience.

In his commentary, Mike White analyses the film in-depth, looking at its symbolism and making sense of the film’s twisting narrative. He occasionally restates some of Lyne’s comments from his track but there’s not much crossover.

In his interview, writer Bruce Joel Rubin talks about how his out-of-body experiences with LSD and later a dream helped inspire the script and how it gained traction in Hollywood. He went on to write a number of successful films but still seems to have quite an open-minded, ‘hippy’ aura about him.

Josh Nelson’s essay discusses the film’s placement among other Vietnam movies, namely looking at how the film could be even more closely linked to war trauma than it seems on the surface. It’s a fascinating reading that can be a lot to get your head around but is nevertheless convincing.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, meanwhile, looks at the themes of spirituality in the film. She also digs deep and helps show that there can be more to mine from the film than perhaps it seems in the interviews with Lyne, where he suggests a more surface meaning to it all.

The deleted scenes are well worth watching too. One major addition here is a scene where Jacob is offered and given an ‘antidote’ for his problem. It’s a tense, visceral sequence that I’m surprised ended up on the cutting room floor, though I’m guessing it would have been one extra layer too many. There’s another creepy post-antidote scene too that would have been effective in the film but maybe drawn it out a little too far. It’s great to see the sequences included here though and Lyne provides an optional commentary, which is a welcome addition.

I’m not usually all that interested in location featurettes but this one has a nice touch towards the end when it features an interview with the owner of the house used for Jacob’s family home sequences.

The archive making-of is surprisingly good too, though it repeats a lot of information from Lynne’s commentary. He and other contributors discuss the film and its themes, breaking down a handful of key scenes, from which we see some behind-the-scenes footage.

The archival interviews are typical press-run affairs but the trio of Lyne, Robbins and Peña speak with intelligence about the film.

So, Imprint have delivered an exceptional package for an excellent film. Highly recommended.


Jacob's Ladder - Imprint
4.5Overall Score
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