Watching Jacob’s Ladder is a deeply uncomfortable experience, but if you have ever – even once – woken up from a dream and felt disoriented or out of touch with reality, it’s compulsory viewing. Following the increasingly unstable world of a Vietnam vet who returns home to a world that’s fragmenting around him, the audience is forced to question its own perception of events as Tim Robbins gives perhaps his finest performance as a man desperately clutching at the last shreds of his sanity.
Jacob Singer (Robbins) knows something is wrong. He’s been seeing things that can’t possibly be real – a homeless man with a tail, a nurse with horns, a train full of blank-faced wraiths – but nobody will believe him when he claims that he’s being followed by demons. Jacob tries to dismiss the things he’s seen as paranoia; but then the demons start trying to kill him. As the story unfolds, the audience is dragged unrelentingly between three conflicting realities with no hint as to which one is true. Jacob lives with his girlfriend Jezzie (Peña), but when he falls asleep he awakes in an alternate timeline where his wife never threw him out and he still lives with her and their children – including their youngest son Gabe (an early appearance from Macaulay Culkin), who Jacob believed to have been killed in a car accident years before. He also suffers debilitating flashbacks to a battle in Vietnam, and it becomes apparent that whatever happened to him in the Mekong Delta is continuing to shape every aspect of his tortured existence.
Jacob’s Ladder is that rarest of beasts – a horror film with a complex and worthwhile plot which goes over and above the cheap thrills of gore and monsters. In deliberately steering away from Hieronymous Bosch-style images of Hell, director Adrian Lyne creates a DIY afterlife in which the scariest moments are those which your imagination populates with its own demons. Tim Robbins is given a true opportunity to demonstrate his enormous range – Jacob is an articulate and educated man who gradually becomes a twisted and neurotic shell of his former self, and as you glance fearfully to the shadows in the corner of the room it becomes monstrously clear how tenuous a grip we have on our own sanity. Disturbing and enlightening, this film richly deserves its status as a cult horror classic.