“YOU’RE ALREADY DEAD”: LIFE, DEATH, AND LETTING GO, IN ‘JACOB’S LADDER’

“See. According to this, you’re already dead.”

Everyone remembers the party scene in Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. You know the one. It’s impossible to forget: a woman dancing seductively at a party is attacked from behind by a demonic creature that just might be Satan, as the protagonist of the film watches in horror. For me though, there’s a more serene, heartbreakingly beautiful moment just prior that truly captures what makes the movie special. Jacob (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam veteran who’s experiencing disturbing, hallucinatory visions (like the one above), is having his palm read by the earthy, flirty Elsa (S. Epatha Merkerson). It’s Merkerson’s only scene, but she and Robbins share so much intimacy in their brief conversation on the stairs, just to the side of the wild, raging party, that the emotional honesty of it has lasted with me for more than 30 years. Pointing to one of Jacob’s lifelines, she notes, “According to this, you’re already dead.” It’s played with gravity by both actors, but it’s also a stolen moment in the midst of the party’s mayhem, a momentary connection between two sweet souls. Robbins and Merkerson share indelible chemistry here, him shyly smiling at her playful flirtations: “Give me those baby blues one more time!” The actors seem so genuinely infatuated with one another that it’s easy to forget we’re watching two people acting.

With Adrian Lyne back in the spotlight recently, thanks to the release of Deep Water, his first film in 20 years, I rewatched Jacob’s Ladder. In my estimation, it’s Lyne’s best work, and as often happens, a director’s best isn’t always their most popular. Jacob’s Ladder seems to belong to the realm of cult films, and those who love it, truly love it. Today, it’s probably best remembered by most for its frightening practical effects and disorienting narrative, as well as Robbins’ extraordinary lead performance. It’s a heady film, thematically and aesthetically. It can be analyzed across so many levels: as an allegory for Vietnam and post-traumatic stress disorder; as a spiritual treatise on life and death; or as a visual feast of pure horror. What really strikes me though, is just how astonishingly beautiful the film is, even as it explores those deep and at times difficult themes. As a spiritual meditation on life and death—and more specifically, letting go of your life when death comes calling—few films can match it.

It all begins with a traumatic moment from Jacob’s past in Vietnam. Then Lyne cuts to Jacob waking up, from what we assume is this Vietnam flashback, riding the subway late at night. Jacob, who holds a Ph.D., has worked as a mail carrier since returning to New York City from Vietnam because, as he explains at one point, he doesn’t want to think anymore since the war. He’s dating the beautiful and fiery Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), a coworker from the post office. He’s also divorced and the father of three boys—the youngest, Gabe, passed away years earlier.

Jacob’s nightmarish dreams and/or hallucinatory visions are becoming increasingly more extreme. Eventually, he reconnects with his old unit from Vietnam and learns they too are experiencing the same sort of harrowing visions. This leads Jacob into a shadowy underworld of conspiracies and cover-ups. Terrifying and disturbing images abound as Jacob descends further into what feels like a continuous, waking nightmare that threatens to steal his sanity.

The film’s special effects are legendary. All of the nightmarish visions were created in-camera and not in post-production. The most famous one, of the hooded character violently shaking his head, was filmed at a slower frame rate and then played back at the regular rate, creating the horrific fast motion effect, which has since been used in countless other films. Lyne drew inspiration from the work of Francis Bacon and H. R. Giger when conjuring much of the haunting—yet beautiful—-imagery.

These elements of horror work so well because of the instances of intoxicating beauty that they so unceremoniously disrupt. These are the moments from Jacob’s life and his subconscious that keep us clinging to some sense of stability in a film that continually destabilizes us at every turn. Even a relatively small, throw-away moment makes an enormous impact, like when a group of teenage girls on the street corner serenade Jacob as he walks by, singing “Please Mr. Postman.” Again, Robbins’ blushing smile is genuine, and this spontaneous interaction with the girls is sweet. Innocent. Life-affirming.

Screenwriter Joel Bruce Rubin was inspired to write Jacob’s Ladder after experiencing a nightmare about being trapped in the New York City subway. His script is heavily influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Old Testament themes from the Hebrew Bible. In 1991 he told the journal Tricycle: The Buddhist Review that “The inspiration in a sense is my entire spiritual upbringing. Once you have a meditative life you start to see that the world is really far different than what it appears to be. What appears to be finite is really couched in the infinite, and the infinite imbues everything in our lives.” That powerful sense of the infinite colors in every aspect of Jacob’s Ladder, creates a warmly spiritual and expansive view of life, death, and the ever-after. All of Jacob’s experiences are woven together to express the full tapestry of his lived experiences, dreams, desires, and fears.

Given Lyne’s sexually frank films like Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful, it’s not surprising that a palpable sexuality courses throughout Jacob’s Ladder. Several different women flirt with Jacob, and despite all of the issues in his relationship with Jezzie, they do share a spark. Reading the film as being all about Jacob’s passing over to the other side makes it seem likely that a lifetime of fantasies and desires are flooding his subconscious at the end of his life, which adds another yearning note of beautiful humanity to the proceedings.

Early in the film, Jezzie expresses contempt for the Biblical names of Jacob’s children, establishing her as running counter to Jacob’s religious faith. In the Bible, Jezebel is queen of Israel, wife of Ahab, and, through her interference with the worship of the Hebrew God Yahweh, represents the archetypal “wicked woman.” In the film, she is the skeptic, the disbeliever, the devil on Jacob’s shoulder. At the same party where Jacob’s flirtatious palm reader reveals that he’s “already dead,” he also witnesses Jezzie dancing erotically with and being penetrated by what appears to be a hell-spawn demon—maybe the devil himself? This terrifying sight sends Jacob spiraling into a near-fatal illness, at which point he finds himself in a terrifyingly regressive hospital, underneath which lies Hell itself. As demonic doctors prepare to operate on him, Jacob sees Jezzie standing over him, assisting in the surgery,

On the opposite end of the Heaven and Hell divide lies Jacob’s kind and protective chiropractor Louis, played with great sensitivity by Danny Aiello. He is a key figure in Jacob’s life, and in the film. At one point, during a chiropractic session, Louis basically explicitly spells out what is happening to Jacob:

“Eckhart [Tolle] saw Hell too. He said: The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of 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 he sees it, if you’re frightened of dying and… 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. So don’t worry, okay? Okay?”

Jezzie grows angry and frustrated when Jacob reminisces about his past life, even going so far as to destroy his precious family photographs—including one of Gabe—by tossing them into the apartment incinerator: “The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away.” On the other end of the spectrum, Louis is trying to ease Jacob into making peace and moving on. There is so much beauty and warmth in both Peña’s and Aiello’s performances. For all of Jezzie’s annoyance at Jacob’s inability to let go, we also see why he would be seduced by her, and there are moments of real, genuine affection between them. Louis is unwavering in his kindness and steadfast in his support of Jacob. In their own ways, they are each trying to help Jacob let go and be free.

By the last scene of the film, we learn that everything that’s transpired previously is the work of a dying man’s desperate attempts to remain among the living. It could all be a final fever dream before Jacob expires for good. It might be an honest-to-God spiritual journey, with Jacob’s soul traveling deep into the recesses of his memories, sifting through the desires and dreams that went unfulfilled during his life. Yet this sad ending also contains the film’s ultimate moment of beautiful transcendence. Jacob is drawn home, to where he used to live with his wife and children. There, in the empty apartment, he finds his Gabe waiting for him. I can’t think of anything anyone would want more as they pass over than to find a loved one there waiting for them. The child gently takes his father’s hand, leading him up the stairs and into the afterlife. Ascending, together. And with that, Jacob’s painful journey ends not with more pain, but with the absence of pain. And in its place lies only transcendence.

As Louis said, the devils are really angels. And in the end, Jacob’s son frees him from this earth because, finally, Jacob is ready to let go.