Most psychological thrillers take great pleasure in pulling the rug from under the audience’s feet in the last act, toying with expectations. The it’s-all-a-dream, no-wait-it-isn’t “twists” that conclude both Audition and Trance are testament to a genre that’s all about the mindfuck.
Jacob’s Ladder never pretends there’s a rug in the first place. Early scenes in the disorientating bedlam of wartime Vietnam or the nightmarish shadows of a deserted subway station make it clear things aren’t quite right. Jacob (Tim Robbins, impressive in a challenging role) is witness to haunting visages of half-men who lurk in the doorways of house parties or leer from speeding cars. A palmreader tells him that his lifeline implies that he’s already dead. The film’s true nature is barely concealed.
But this is no puzzle to be solved: Jacob’s Ladder is sometimes elegiac, sometimes chilling, sometimes mundane; it’s part horror, part war movie, part spiritual contemplation and totally uninterested in telling a traditional narrative. Accordingly, the weakest parts are in the middle stretch, where a story about government conspiracies and hallucinogenic drugs saps momentum.
The film’s strength lies in its murky miasma, a collection of memorably macabre images whose potency is heightened by their inexplicability.