Before it was made into the influential cult classic it became, Jacob’s Ladder, written by Bruce Joel Rubin, also the screenwriter of the blockbuster Ghost, was famous as one of the most highly regarded and unproduced scripts floating around Hollywood. Several high-level directors such as Ridley Scott, Sidney Lumet, and Michael Apted were all interested in making Rubin’s metaphysical tale over the 10 years it languished.
Hot off his success with Fatal Attraction however, Adrian Lyne was up for a challenge and Jacob’s Ladder was just the challenge he was looking for. The film was released on November 2, 1990. Though it was only a modest success at the time of its release, it grew to become a cult classic on home video. It directly inspired such video games as Silent Hill.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Robert Enrico film Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (based on the Ambrose Bierce short story), the art of Francis Bacon and H.R. Giger, and the photographs of Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin were all influential in shaping Jacob’s Ladder into the visually stunning, psychological horror classic it has become.
In preparing this beat sheet—and to ensure the artist’s intent was represented—the script, published by Applause, along with Bruce Joel Rubin’s insightful essay were studied, as well as several viewings of the film along with Adrian Lyne’s director’s commentary from the Blu-ray, which is available through Lionsgate Films.
Written by: Bruce Joel Rubin
Directed by: Adrian Lyne
MITH Type: Supra-Natural Monster
MITH Cousins: The Sixth Sense, Carnival of Souls, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, The Others, A Tale of Two Sisters, Silent Hill, The Orphanage, The Grudge, The Woman in Black, The Uninvited, The Devil’s Backbone, Stir of Echoes, Ghost
Opening Image: Two Bell UH-1 “Huey” helicopters carry supplies against a golden sunset in the Vietnamese jungle. A title lets us know that this is the Mekong Delta on October 6, 1971.
Set-Up: A patrol base of army soldiers smoke and joke with one another, many eating their rations. Among them are Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), who jokes with George (Ving Rhames), Paul (Pruitt Taylor Vince), Frank (Eriq La Salle), Doug (Brian Tarantina), Rod (Anthony Alessandro), and Jerry (Brent Hinkley) in the lazy tropical heat. We’ll recognize these men later in the story. Some pass around a joint to take the edge off.
The stillness explodes when word over the radio reports that hostiles are in the tree line. The soldiers move into action. In the confusing melee, several of the soldiers, including George, fall to the ground and shake uncontrollably in epileptic seizures. Mortar fire and machine guns erupt as the camp is under fire. Many of Jake’s squad members act strangely—vomiting, erratic behavior, and staring into space. Is this the effect of combat stress or is it something else?
Catalyst: Jacob runs for the wood line, alone. A moment later an unseen assailant impales Jake in the stomach with a bayonet. Like every Catalyst, this begins the events of the hero’s journey.
A moment later, Jake wakes up on a dingy New York City subway in 1975. He’s wearing a postal worker’s outfit and clutches a copy of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Was what happened a bad dream or only a terrible memory?
Theme Stated: Jacob sees a subway sign that reads “HELL. That’s what life can be, doing drugs. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Help is available, night or day.” This sign is oddly prophetic and also the theme—a man wrestling with his own personal hell, complete with angels and demons fighting for his soul.
Debate: As Jacob exits the subway, he sees a sleeping homeless man who appears to have a tail that writhes just under his grimy coat. What fresh hell is this? The Debate is when the hero doubts the journey he must take. Jake finds the exit at the Bergen Street station inaccessible. He climbs the stairs but finds the exits locked (ascending and descending stairs will prove an important symbol in the film).
Jacob attempts to cross the subway tracks, a dangerous venture, to access the other station exits. As he does, he’s nearly run over by a subway train. Inside, all of the passengers are peering at him. They almost seem like phantoms, or souls, trapped within the metal box.
Jake arrives home to his claustrophobic apartment in the projects. Jezebel “Jezzie” Pipkin (Elizabeth Peña) asks him where he’s been. Jake explains he had to work late to cover a sick employee. She climbs into the shower with him.
Back in Vietnam, the night rain patters on the emerald foliage. Jacob, wounded, crawls through the muddy darkness. Distant voices of men speaking English attract his attention. Flashlights cut through the darkness. Jake calls out to them for help.
In his New York apartment, the blinding white afternoon sunlight awakens Jacob. He and Jezzie have a passionate relationship and she mentions that he sold his soul for good sex. Jezzie, who’s getting ready for work (she’s also employed by the post office), spills a crumpled paper sack full of photos onto the bed. The photos were dropped off by one of Jake’s sons. Jacob’s entire life fills these photos: him as a baby, his boys, Jed and Eli, his ex-wife, Sarah, and his lost son, Gabe (Macaulay Culkin).
B Story: Jacob cries as he remembers his dead son (who we later learn was hit by a car) and stuffs Gabe’s photo in his wallet. His love for Gabe will help Jake through this hellish journey. The B Story typically is the “love story” and/or the “helper story” that drives the theme.
Jezzie becomes enraged that the photos make Jake sad. As she leaves for work, she dumps his photos down the apartment’s incinerator. Does she not like things that make Jake sad, or was there an ulterior motive in destroying his past? The photos brown, crinkle, and burn, as if in the fires of Hell.
Having back trouble, Jacob goes to visit Louis Denardo (Danny Aiello), his chiropractor. As Louis sets Jacob’s back, he tells his patient that he saw Sarah, his ex-wife, and that she still loves him and he should go back to her. We also learn that Jacob spent six years getting his PhD in philosophy but now works in the post office. He tells Louis that after Nam he didn’t want to think anymore.
As Louis does a deep adjustment, Jacob has a quick flashback to Vietnam. The army soldiers with the flashlights find him, but Jacob is in bad shape, holding his intestines in with his hands. When Jacob returns again, Louis is standing over him, the light warm and ethereal. Jacob tells Louis he looks like an angel (which he does), an overgrown cherub. He tells Louis that he’s a “lifesaver.” There may be some truth to this offhand compliment.
As Jacob strolls home from Louis’ office, someone tells him to lookout as a black LTD with US Government plates tries to run him down. Jacob manages to avoid getting hit. As the car speeds away, he sees a vibrating demonic face staring back at him.
Jacob goes to the hospital to see Dr. Carlson, his specialist who was his out-patient therapist when he got out of Vietnam. The callous nurse tells Jacob that there’s no doctor of that name working here and no file on Jacob Singer. Jacob becomes upset and knocks over a plant. As the nurse bends down to pick it up, her cap falls off. She has what look like horn protrusions growing out of her scalp. Terrified, Jacob runs, trying to find his missing doctor.
Break into Two: When Jacob finds Doctor Carlson’s office, he learns from another therapist that Carlson died a few weeks ago after his car blew up. With nobody to talk about the strange things he’s been seeing, what appear to be demons, Jacob is lost. Characteristic of the Break into Two, the hero makes a choice to move forward from the thesis world into the antithesis world. Jacob needs to know what’s going on.
Fun and Games: Jacob talks to Jezzie about the demon-like “creatures” he’s been seeing. Jezzie dismisses them as “lowlifes and bag ladies” as well as the car that tried to run him down as “kids on a joy ride.” Jacob is unconvinced by her reassurances.
At a post office Christmas party in a fellow employee’s apartment, Jacob starts to experience more strange things—such as a skinned sheep’s head in the refrigerator.
A palm reader tells Jacob that his “life line” has ended. That Jacob is already dead.
Jezzie convinces Jacob to dance. Things escalate as Jezzie and a man she’s dancing with appear to transform into demons in a strange, sexual, gyrating ecstasy. He sees strange men with vibrating heads. Jacob loses it, screaming. This sequence is a promise of the premise moment, indicative of the Fun and Games that the movie’s trailer had guaranteed.
Back at the apartment, Jezzie chastises Jacob for going crazy at the party. Jacob isn’t feeling well, hiding in his bed covers, when Jezzie takes his temperature. It’s up to 107 degrees—he’s burning up. After she calls the doctor, Jezzie and some helpful neighbors force Jacob into a bath of ice cubes.
Jacob wakes up in his bed. The bed of his old life with Sarah. He’s freezing and he closes the window. He tells Sarah he had a dream of living with another woman, Jezzie from the post office, whom he met at a Christmas party. He tells her there were all of these demons and he was on fire—burning from ice. Jacob jokes with Sarah about Jezzie’s sexual prowess.
Gabe comes into the room and wants his dad to tuck him back in, crossing A and B stories. Jacob does so, sharing a sweet paternal moment with his lost son as well as Jed and Eli. This was likely one of the happiest and most satisfying moments of Jacob’s life.
Jacob awakens in the icy bathtub. It was touch and go. The doctor tells the bewildered Jacob that he must have friends in high places. He flashes back to Vietnam. Jacob’s inert body is being airlifted into a helicopter to be taken to a field hospital.
The next morning, Jake awakens back in the apartment he shares with Jezzie. She tells him that he was talking to his ex-wife and kids. Jacob asks if he’s dead.
Two weeks later, Jacob convalesces and researches images of Hell and damnation (like Doré’s illustrations of Paradise Lost).
As Jake is ignoring Jezebel, she screams at him, needing his attention. She appears as a demon. As Jezzie leaves, Jake receives a call from Paul, one of the members of his old platoon. Paul needs to see Jake.
Midpoint: Jacob and Paul meet at a seedy pool hall. Paul tells Jacob he’s going out of his mind, seeing demons. Jacob’s friend carries a bible and crucifix wherever he goes, but he says that they don’t help. Jacob tells Paul that he understands, he’s seen the demons too. This is a false victory for Jake as he finally has someone who understands and believes the hell he’s going through.
As Paul climbs into his car, he turns the key and it erupts into a fireball, raising the stakes. The explosion knocks Jacob off his feet. Jacob has a flashback of riding in the helicopter, wounded, the worse for wear, the airship taking on enemy gunfire, one of the pilots hit and killed.
Back at the explosion of Paul’s car, Jacob is pulled away from the burning wreck by somebody we’ll later learn is Michael Newman (Matt Craven), who hides a dark secret about what happened that tragic night in Vietnam. This event also sets a ticking clock into motion, as it’s only a matter of time before Jacob, like Paul, is hunted down for knowing too much.
Bad Guys Close In: After Paul’s funeral, Jacob meets with the surviving members of his platoon—George, Rod, Jerry, Doug, and Frank.
They’ve all experienced strange things since their time in Vietnam. When the subject of demons comes up, it makes many of them uncomfortable. Jacob also notes that Dr. Carlson’s car blew up just like Paul’s—there are dark forces at work here. The combat vets are sure that the Army is responsible.
They meet with Geary (Jason Alexander), a cynical lawyer who isn’t sure he believes their story but says he will take a look into it and needs depositions from them all. Jacob and his platoon mates leave Geary’s office celebrating that they might be victorious and find answers now that they’ve involved the law. However, the same menacing black LTD that tried to run Jacob down previously, with men in black suits within, sits parked across the street—the bad guys are closing in.
Later, Jezzie tells Jake that Geary called (while he was in the shower) and that the lawyer told her that he’s not taking the case.
Puzzled, Jake calls Frank, who’s spooked; somebody got to Geary. Frank tells him that he and all of Jake’s friends have dropped the case. And to not call him again. Jacob goes to Geary, who’s just getting out of court, to find out what’s going on. Geary tells him that he looked into the case and that the Army said Jake and his friends never even went to Vietnam. They were “discharged on psychological grounds after war games in Thailand.” Geary tells Jake to leave him alone.
All Is Lost: As Jacob storms out of the court house, some men in black grab him and stuff him into the LTD with bewildered onlookers watching. The two beefy men who bookend Jake in the back seat tell him to keep his mouth shut or they’ll kill him. Jake fights them and is eventually thrown from the moving car. His back goes out and he’s virtually paralyzed. A Salvation Army Santa Claus steals his wallet (with his only photo of Gabe in it). This is a whiff of death moment as things go from bad to worse for Jake.
Dark Night of the Soul: Jacob is admitted to a hospital; however, it’s more like something out of Dante’s Inferno. As he’s being wheeled into the bowels of the hospital, there are insane people and body parts strewn along the blood-soaked tiles.
Jacob is strapped to a machine. He says that he wants to leave but a stern doctor says that he cannot—he’s dead. Jake doesn’t believe him. Jezzie appears among the robed white doctors. They torture him like something out of the Spanish Inquisition. This truly is Hell—Jacob’s been forsaken without any hope of rescue. The reality of his dire situation is dawning on him.
Sarah and Jacob’s two sons, Jed and Eli, come to see him. Jake asks his ex-wife, who says she still loves him, for help. But she cannot.
Break into Three: Someone who can help is the “overgrown cherub,” Louis Denardo, who busts into the hellish hospital like a heavenly hurricane. He’s shouting and angry. He finds Jacob and fights with the orderlies. And then, he takes Jacob away, back to his office. There, the “lifesaver” known as Louis fixes Jacob’s back and restores his ability to walk. As Louis is working on Jake, he asks him if he’s ever read Meister Eckhart, a German philosopher. Jake says that he hasn’t.
Louis says this, paraphrasing Eckhart, which helps put the entire story into perspective: “The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life: your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away, but they’re not punishing you, he said, they’re freeing your soul. So the way [Eckhart] sees it: if you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth. It’s just a matter of how you look at it, that’s all.”
Back in his apartment, Jake is asked by Jezzie where’s he’s been for the last two days. He tells her the hospital, but she called all the hospitals. Jake receives a phone call—somebody who knows what happened in Vietnam. It involves chemical warfare.
Finale: Jake arrives at the meeting point and meets Michael Newman (who pulled Jake away from Paul’s burning car). Michael explains that he, against his will, was forced to make The Ladder, a chemical compound that would make soldiers more aggressive—that would tap into their primal fear and rage “straight down the ladder.”
Tested on jungle monkeys and enemy Vietcong soldiers, the drug made the men literally tear each other apart. A fraction of a dose was given to Jacob’s company. It worked; the men fought aggressively—except they attacked one another. Jacob was bayonetted by an American soldier.
Armed with the truth, Jacob takes a taxi and returns home to Sarah’s apartment in Brooklyn. Where he was happiest. The doorman acknowledges Jake as Dr. Singer and lets him in. Jake moves around the dark apartment, everyone apparently asleep. Jake remembers Meister Eckhart’s sentiment via Louis: “If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth.”
As the sun rises and the apartment becomes warm with ethereal light, Jake hears the sounds of the song “Sonny Boy” from Gabe’s music box. The boy sits on the stairs waiting for Jake, crossing A and B stories. Gabe comforts his father and then, like the angel Gabriel, coaxes Jake to ascend the stairs. As they do, its image fades to a brilliant white.
Final Image: Cut back to Vietnam. Jacob Singer lies still on a table in a field hospital tent. He has died and yet he wears a peaceful expression on his face, as if he’s finally made his peace with his earthly attachments. The army doctors pronounce Jake dead, noting that he put up “a hell of a fight,” and leave the tent.
The Vietnam “flashbacks” were actually in real time and the “hell” that Jake had experienced was all in his mind via the Ladder drug, as his life slipped away during the fateful attack. Home was heaven to Jake and he finally ascended to the ethereal realm to join Gabe forever.
As the film fades to black, these pale words burn onto the screen: “It was reported that the hallucinogenic drug BZ was used in experiments on soldiers during the Vietnam war. The Pentagon denied the story.”
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