Thursday, 22 July 2010

Jacob's Ladder, Adrian Lyne, USA 1990

When Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder first came out twenty years ago I rather smugly gave it a miss, assuming that since it was directed by Lyne, it would be just another glossy Hollywood blockbuster peppered with a fair amount of naked flesh, a dash of violence and drenched in a manipulative, syrupy score that is characteristic for this sort of film. Now, after having finally seen Jacob's Ladder at long last, I have to admit that my assumption was not only smug, but actually wrong and therefore downright stupid.

The reason that prompted me to watch Lyne's film a full twenty years down the line, had to do with the fact that every so often Jacob's Ladder would pop up in a review, a book or an article by always being discussed either favourably or even enthusiastically. Needless to say, this made me curious.

What Jacob's Ladder has in common with Lyne's other films is that it is gripping from beginning to end. But while films like 91/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction are guilty pleasures and one is constantly aware of how Lyne manipulates and plays with the emotions of the spectator as they watch the film, in Jacob's Ladder this manipulation happens in a far subtler way. Yes, Lyne still does know which button's to push, and he especially understands perfectly how to create 'mood', atmosphere or, to use a term often associated with German Expressionist cinema, 'Stimmung'. The scene in the mental home is not just visually brilliant, it is also extremely harrowing and morbid. Moreover, It is hard to think of another film in which New York City has looked more apocalyptic, more menacing, than it does in Jacob's Ladder. David Fincher's Seven springs to mind, but of course the city in that film remains unspecified throughout. And while it seems to resemble New York, Fincher's decision to keep the city nameless was a stroke of genius and undoubtedly one of the things why Seven is so hauntingly eerie as it made the menace universal and not tied to a specific place or city. However, what Fincher appears to have picked up from Lyne was the look, for the city that is home to the despondent detectives played by Freeman and Pitt is not dissimilar to the bleak and grubby New York of Jacob Singer, who - it seems - is a Vietnam veteran and, like many of them, returned home to the US a mentally scarred person.

Jacob's Ladder as visualised by the English poet and painter William Blake

That Jacob only seems to be a Nam vet is something the spectator becomes gradually aware of as the story wears on. And the film's only flaw may well be that Lyne - most probably upon the instigation of the producers - spells this out way too explicitly at the film's end rather than keeping it subtle as he has done up to that point. It is a minor flaw, though, and one that I'm more than willing to forgive in the light of the film's overall brilliance. It is during Jacob's Ladder's last minutes that all of a sudden the film's title make total sense, at least in its biblical meaning. (The film's title is taken from The Book of Genesis, in which Jacob envisions his ascent into heaven). And it occurred to me that with Jacob's Ladder Lyne may not only have influenced David Fincher, he also anticipated films like Shymalan's The Sixth Sense, Nolan's Memento, or Amenabar's The Others. Ironically, although all of these films noticeably took their cue from Jacob's Ladder, they have enjoyed a far more positive reaction upon their first release than did Lyne's antecedent, which was a moderate critical success but a complete box office flop. This, I suppose, was because Jacob's Ladder was so unlike Lyne's previous films, and his habitual following probably felt quite disappointed and let down, expecting something rather different from the director who, two years earlier, gave them a fascinating, sexually charged, yet ultimately murderous Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Upon closer inspection, however, the main themes of Fatal Attraction and Jacob's Ladder and indeed 91/2 Weeks are, perhaps, not that far apart after all as at the core of all three films is a character who is out of synch with reality, who is either mentally deranged or a variation thereof as, for instance in the case in Jacob's Ladder, where the main character is wildly hallucinating (while in the process of dying).

It is no exaggeration to call Adrian Lyne the quintessential 1980s director. Few other films epitomise that particular decade as well as his films of that period do. With Jacob's Ladder, though, which was released in November 1990, Lyne anticipated and influenced a whole string of films of the 1990s and early 2000s with a timeliness which in hindsight seems as eerie as the film itself.

Jacob's Ladder is out on DVD.