Strong on suspense, but weak on allegory, JACOB’S LADDER will probably do more harm than good for people unfamiliar with the Genesis account of Jacob’s dream in which he saw angels ascending and descending on a stairway to heaven.
Wounded on a battlefield in Vietnam, Jacob (Jake) Singer’s next thoughts are after his return home to New York City. He works as a mail carrier and lives with Jezebel, another postal worker with whom he immediately cohabitated after divorcing his wife. Jake has fond memories of his son, Eli, who died before Jake went to war.
Suddenly, Jake begins having weird flashes that take him back to his last battlefield experience. Vivid hallucinations follow, in which in one instant he is in bed fornicating with Jezebel, in the next moment he has been reunited with his wife and family. By far the most frightening hallucinations are what he believes are demons who seem to pursue him. Things don’t get better when a palm reader tells him he should be dead.
Then, Jake is contacted by a terrified army buddy who reports that he, too, is being chased by demons, which causes him to believe that he is going to hell. Jake gathers the whole platoon together, and they plan to file a lawsuit against the army. Since they all have the same symptoms, Jake is convinced that the government is hiding something from them and that their hallucinations are the result of secret military chemical experiments.
As Jake fights to hold onto reality, the hallucinations increase in intensity, alternating between horrifying demons and pleasant times with his dead son, Eli. A close friend offers some New Age counsel: “If you’re afraid of dying and are holding onto life, then the devils you’re seeing will tear you apart, but, if you make your peace, then the devils are really angels who are trying to help you.”
Jake is finally contacted by an informant in the chemical warfare unit, who claims that he invented an incredibly powerful mind-altering drug. Known as the “ladder” because of the way it brought a man down to his most primal fears, the army thought the drug would make men fight more aggressively. The drug was fed to Jake’s platoon, but backfired — it set brother against brother.
Jake has another hallucination, his last, where he ascends a staircase with his son, Eli, to a brilliant white light. Movie closes with Jake pronounced dead — on an operating table in Vietnam.
So what is this convoluted picture about? Is this another anti-government film that again points the finger at secret military experiments gone awry and government cover-ups? Or, is it all a dream, highlighting a nominalistic or illusory worldview?
Director Adrian Lyne says JACOB’S LADDER “deals with hell and heaven and things we think about, but maybe don’t talk about that much.” However, Mr. Lyne is not talking about the real Hell where sinners are condemned to spend eternity, but rather for him “hell is in your head.” Thus, Mr. Lyne tries to probe the interior of the human mind and concludes that demons are figments of one’s imagination. This is not what the Bible teaches. Furthermore, he calls on us to “make peace” before we ascend the heavenly staircase, but never is it mentioned with whom, or how. He also tries to garner support for his argument by giving the characters biblical names (i.e., Jezebel and Eli).
Moreover, writer Bruce Joel Rubin explains that the movie is “about digging into the human psyche and purging deep fears and unconscious terror … so that you can see them and touch them and be free of them.” This perspective deviates far from the Truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
At any rate, it is more important to recognize Jacob’s ladder as a sign that the Lord offered to be Jacob’s God. Jesus told a disciple that he would “see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Jesus himself is the bridge between heaven and earth, the only “mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5).
To capture Jacob’s nightmarish hallucinations, Lyne drew on the tortured imagery for which painter Francis Bacon and photographer Joel-Peter Witkin are known. For other imagery, Lyne gives the viewer a full dose of female nudity. There’s also fornication, violence and roughly 64 instances of cursing and swearing. Thus, this ladder only leads to Hell.
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53 obscenities and 11 profanities, female nudity, fornication, sexual innuendo, palm reading, and violence