Jacob’s Ladder treats the subject of the Vietnam war with a little more respect than Piranha. Jacob is beset by visions and fever dreams. We constantly switch between realities, from the Vietnamese jungle, to his home in New York City, and it’s bewildering, for him and us. I often wrestle with ways of getting more fantastical imagery into my realist stories, and this film’s solution is ingenious. It has actual cool-as-hell demons in it, and it still feels art house. Tim Robbins is magnificent.
There is a shot around the halfway point of this film that made me think about the nature of film-making compared with writing prose fiction. Jacob is lying in the bath having just regained consciousness from a fever, and he realises that the wonderful dream he’s woken from was not real, and he looks so shocked and sad, I was deeply moved. One of the creative writing courses I did many years ago described how the metaphor of film can be useful in writing fiction. It advised the writer like a director and cinematographer, with scenes built of shots and cuts, with entrance and exit points, and so on. It’s only a small leap to wonder how the writer is like an actor too. Watching Jacob come out of his dream, I realised I couldn’t reproduce my experience of that image in prose. The camerawork, editing, acting, sound composition — all of it contributed. Words alone could create a different version of that image, but it would be different.
That got a bit philosophical. Anyway, the film is a masterpiece — ambitious, emotional, and beautifully constructed.