Sunday, September 1, 2013

JACOB'S LADDER (Adrian Lyne, 1990, USA)

The Lunatic Fringe
Jacobs sings a desperate plea to a purgatory of terminal reality where demons stalk the lunatic fringe. His voice echoes through the valley of death where seemingly malignant forces conspire to tear away the last vestiges of his humanity: Jacob has finally reached the last rung of sanity unable to attain the gentle light, devoured by foreboding darkness.
Director Adrian Lynne has crafted a psychological horror film ripe with religiosity, that vast conundrum between faith and reason. The narrative is told on three levels of perception: it begins in Vietnam before transitioning to what seems to be present tense, interspersed with flashbacks to his life before the war: we are befuddled by memories within memories. Haunting images of the sun peeking through the jungle canopy like the all-seeing eye of a fierce god spying Jacob’s innards spilt upon the ground creates a paranoid allusion in the “real world” where grotesque Boschian nightmares relentlessly pursue him. Lynne films these creatures in distorted ways, utilizing slow camera speeds, POV angles, and flash-cuts but he hides these images in mundane routine: this sudden transgression of the impossible is frightening and unsettling.
Lyne uses a wonderful aural transition from the first sequence to Jacob’s new reality: as he lies dying in Vietnam his scream merges with the screech of a subway train. Chiaroscuro shadows create a disjunctive feeling as Jacob seemingly wakes from a dream, Camus’ book THE STRANGER clutched in a palsied hand. He encounters a passenger who seems vacant though perceptive, her dark eyes could be full of venom but she ignores Jacob’s simple questions. The sound of the train plummeting through dark tunnels, the interplay of light and shadow, the dilapidated condition of the train (with a close-up of an anti-drug sign which reads Hell) and the withdrawn passenger all contribute to the suspense. As Jacob is stepping from the train he sees a homeless person curled up on the seat asleep and we’re shown a quick POV shot of an obscene tail quickly hidden from view. Jacob hesitates, scared: did he (we) just see that? What’s brilliant is that we feel Jacob’s fear but it is amorphous and unfocused. Are we seeing reality from his paranoid perception or omnisciently?
As the paranoid “fantasies” become more intense, we are left to consider which of the three narratives is the most likely. Even the final act’s exposition is called in to question when considered. If he’s dying in Vietnam and the entire film is a death-dream then he must be imagining the conversation with the chemist. But how could Jacob know this information to dream it in the first place? It would be future knowledge unknown to the Jacob dying in Vietnam. The mind can recall and create the most interesting fantasies so it could be Jacob’s logic trying to make sense of a world which is quickly diminishing. After all, he is a very intelligent person who desires to complete (or does so, depending on which reality you suppose) his PHD in Philosophy. So the whole drug experiment is a concoction of his brain trying to make sense out of this madness.
But there is another more frightening implication: that Jacob’s soul enters Hell. If so, then Louis his chiropractor takes the place of Virgil trying to lead him from the Inferno. Jacob also suffers burning by ice which is only found in Dante’s tempestuous realm. Jacob is now enamored with Jezebel, a woman who could be a “false prophet” meaning she is something other than she seems. Is she a demon trying to imprison him in Hell? Or is she an angel trying to set him free? This “reality” then is inhabited by others who die so there are lost souls among the demons. For instance, he encounters fellow soldiers suffering the same fate and experiencing the same paranoia; these then are lost souls hoping for freedom. And they likely find it before Jacob who is held in this stasis by his inability to let go of life. I find this interpretation terrifying (in context of film, I personally don’t believe in religion) because Jacob finds himself being “punished” for no other reason than that obscene Christian doctrine of Original Sin. Jacob is guiltless: a good person, father, husband as depicted in the pre-Vietnam “flashbacks”…so why does he deserve this pain?  
Competing narratives lead to competing interpretations and this imbues the film with an unsettling and disturbing tension as we attempt to understand what Jacob does not. If this is a “death-dream” then it is exactly what a professor of philosophy steeped in Catholic dogma would imagine. On the other hand, if it’s an objective destination then how terrifying that this learned professor cannot identify it!
The film ends with a proclamation that the US Army did indeed use drug experiments on soldiers and civilians during the Vietnam War. It’s exhibited as an omniscient title card after the movie fades to black, a statement outside of the meta-narrative. What is the purpose of this confounding information? The drug hypothesis is questionably a figment of Jacob’s imagination and, even if true contextually within the narrative, contributes little or nothing towards the film’s resolution especially when considered from the character’s point-of-view. One possibility is that it purges Jacob of any guilt over his death and places it firmly in the hands of the faceless Government. In other words, the entire film is a metaphor for our Government as Evil Entity dominating its guiltless citizens who are born into a corrupt system beyond their control or understanding. Fascinating to consider, JACOB’S LADDER can be experienced multiple times and reward each viewing with new perspectives.

Final Cut: (B+)