Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder is a film with so many layers of mystery and theology that you can read it how you see fit: as a story of heaven vs. hell, a dying man in limbo, as post-Vietnam PTSD or as one long hallucination.
Its little-known alternate title is Dante’s Inferno, in reference to Inferno by Dante Alighieri. Screenwriter and co-producer Bruce Joel Rubin saw the film as a modern interpretation of the Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State, (The Bardo Thodol) the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Tibetan text is intended to guide you through the experiences that the consciousness has after death, in the Bardo: the interval between death and the next rebirth. The text also includes chapters on the omens of death and the rituals to undertake when death is coming.
Dante completed his epic poem “The Divine Comedy” in 1320. A spiritual journey through the world beyond the grave, as he ascends the nine circles of hell, through purgatory, and eventually to paradise. Calling his poem a “Comedy,” Dante uses the medieval classification: a comedy, he wrote in a letter to Cangrande Della Scala is “all poetry in middle style with a terrifying beginning and a happy end, written in the vernacular.” Jacob’s Ladder certainly takes us on that journey.
The story begins on October 6, 1971. An American combat medic, Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), is with the 1st Air Cavalry Division, deployed in a village in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta when his unit comes under attack. Many of Jacob’s comrades are wounded or killed, and others exhibit strange behavior with some suffering catatonia, convulsions, and seizures. Jacob escapes into the jungle, only to be bayoneted by an unseen attacker.
We might automatically accept that the events after that take place in Jacob’s fevered subconscious as he lies on his deathbed in that Vietnam triage station. But, Jacob’s Ladder has so many angles (and angels) that we take our eye off the donut and focus on the hole. Jacob’s demons are blamed on PTSD and the lingering effects of The Ladder—the chemical he and his fellow veterans were dosed with to increase their violent tendencies and make them greater soldiers. In Jacob’s world, purgatory and PTSD are indistinguishable.
Jacob awakens in the New York City subway; it is 1975 now. Limbo is said to be a dark, foreboding place of grand buildings and structures. He sees what appears to be a tentacle protruding from a sleeping homeless person who may be in reference to Judge Minos perhaps who appears in Limbo in Dante’s poem. Minos is the demon who decides which level of hell the newcomer belongs in.
Lust & Gluttony
We learn that Jacob works as a postal clerk, and lives in a rundown apartment in Brooklyn with his girlfriend, Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña). In the bible, Jezebel is the temptress, but in the film, it is hard to tell whether she really is out to get him, or if Jacob’s just paranoid about her intentions. She burns the photos of his wife and children, determined to make Jacob forget the first of his three lives—first being with Sarah, then his time in Vietnam, now his tumultuous relationship with Jezzie. With her casual sexiness, offering the divine pleasures of her half-naked body as an almost constant, she tempts Jacob to remain in hell with her, instead of letting go and allowing himself to pass away into whatever’s waiting for him at the top of the stairs.
Jacob flirts with a palm-reader on the staircase of a raucous party at his neighbour’s apartment. She tells him, at first laughing and then becoming serious:
“And your life line…You have a very strange line, hon. No, it’s not funny. See, according to this, you’re already dead. You’re out of here, baby.”
After learning that he is dead, Jacob watches the debauchery of the party transform into a hellish orgy, in which Jezzie appears as a lustful demon, willingly being penetrated by a massive horned beast.
Jacob is struck down with a fever of 106. Jezzie, who really does seem to love him—making the temptation of their life together far more seductive—gathers ice from their neighbours and carries Jacob into a painful ice bath, watching over him all night, fearful for his life. In his fever, Jacob dreams, or remembers, that he is shivering in bed with Sarah, who insists on leaving the window open because she craves the fresh air. He tells her he had a dream that he lived with another woman: Jezzie, from work. “She was really good in bed…she had these great thighs.” Sarah laughs and scolds him, and Jacob acknowledges the rest of it:
God, what a nightmare.
There were all these demons, and I was on fire.
I was burning from ice.
Jacob was traumatized before he even went to Vietnam. He lost his son Gabe, played by a tiny and adorable Macaulay Culkin. The tragedy created a rift in his family, forever keeping him separate from the surviving members. We do meet Jacob’s other two sons, Eli and Jed, and his estranged wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalember), but they seem like warm but barely-there memories; ghosts of people he knew once upon a time. They appear like hazily lit angels and have beautiful biblical names.
Sarah was the first mother of Israel. Jedidiah means beloved. Eli is God on High. And Gabriel? Gabriel is the messenger of God. So what role did Jacob play in the bible? He was the father of the Tribes of Israel. He heard the voice of God and envisioned a ladder reaching up into the heavens, the passageway out of mortal life. Jacob is met with ladders and stairs throughout the film. Not only in the fittingly named drug that he’s told is ravaging his mind, but in nearly every alley, hallway and room he enters.
Gabe enters the room and says he can’t sleep, and Jacob takes him to bed, tucking him in as he greets Jed and Eli, who’ve also woken up. It’s a beautiful dream, or memory, but Jacob is pulled quickly from it back into his current reality. He opens his eyes to find himself submerged in icy water as Jezzie and their doctor peer at him from above.
Greed & Anger
Jacob is increasingly plagued by disturbing experiences and apparitions, including glimpses of faceless vibrating figures, and narrowly escapes being run over by a pursuing car. He attempts to contact his regular doctor at the local VA hospital, but after first being told that there is no record of him ever being a patient there, Jacob is told that his doctor has died in a car explosion.
One of Jacob’s former platoon mates, Paul, contacts him to reveal he is suffering from similar experiences but is immediately killed when his car explodes. After the funeral, other surviving members of the platoon confess that they have all been experiencing terrifying hallucinations. Believing that they are suffering the effects of a military experiment performed on them without their knowledge or consent, they hire a lawyer to investigate. The lawyer quits the case after reading military files documenting that the soldiers were never in combat and were discharged for psychological reasons. Jacob’s comrades soon back down and Jacob suspects they have been threatened into doing so. He is abducted by men in dark suits who try to intimidate him. Jacob fights them and escapes but is injured and nearly paralyzed in the process.
Jacob is taken to a nightmarish hospital, where he is told he has been killed and this is home. This scene is so frightening. It prays on the fears of what losing your mind completely could be like, how you imagine your condemnation to the asylum to be like til the end of days. The others there are so disturbed that they are no longer human. Body parts from God knows what atrocity, lie discarded on the filthy hospital floor.
Just as an eyeless surgeon plunges a dirty syringe into Jacob’s forehead, his chiropractor Louis saves him, played with such warmth by Danny Aiello. Jacob looks up from the chiropractor’s table and sees Louis’ head circled by fluorescent light. “You know, you look like an angel, Louis. Like an overgrown cherub. Anyone ever tell you that?” Louis smiles and replies, “Yeah. You. Every time I see you.”
Interestingly, Jacob’s most wholesome guide towards the light is a chiropractor. For anyone that suffers the hell of constant back pain, a chiropractor truly is an angel on earth. Louis relieves Jacob’s pain. Not only physically, but mentally, and it is through Louis’ words that we, at last, discover that Jacob’s clamber through the nine levels of hell has been a purgatory of his own making. He fights to live and stay on earth rather than allow himself to ascend that ladder and climb out of his mortal existence.
Louis quotes the 14th-century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart:
“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. They’re freeing your soul. So, 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.”
Violence & Fraud
Jacob is approached by a distressed man who was seen treating his wound in a medevac helicopter and who also dragged him away from Paul’s burning car. He introduces himself as Michael Newman, and tells Jacob that he was a chemist with the Army’s chemical warfare division where he designed a drug he called The Ladder, which when ingested massively increased aggression. Michael claims that to test the drug’s effectiveness, a dose was secretly given to Jacob’s unit before the battle, causing some of them to turn on one another in a murderous frenzy. Michael’s story triggers a vision of Jacob’s wounding in Vietnam, which shows his attacker as a fellow American soldier.
So what is a dream? What is a hallucination? And, what is a memory? As Jacob’s Ladder presents it, the scene with Sarah is the falsity, a hallucination brought on by his fever and the ice, the result of his trauma and chemical abuse. But when the film ends with Jacob dead on that gurney in the middle of Vietnam, we realise the opposite is true. He once dreamt of his sexy coworker and admitted it to his wife. As he fights his impending death, trapped in memories both real and false, that dream becomes a reality. The fever is the hell around the corner, burning through Jacob as long as he holds on, the devils tearing his life away. The ice is both the cold from Sarah’s open window and the quieting of his soul when he allows himself, for a moment, to remember his life as it was and to let it go—before the temptation to hold on, temptation in the form of Jezzie’s solicitous vigil, brings him back into purgatory.
Jacob reads Albert Camus’ The Stranger throughout the film, and like the protagonist of that novel, a man waiting for his death at first unwillingly and finally with peace, he believes it is better to burn than to disappear.
“He looks kind of peaceful, the guy. Put up a hell of a fight, though.”
The reason that Jacob’s Ladder works so well is that its ending is no arbitrary twist making questionable every event that came before it. We believe Jacob’s purgatory is PTSD because Jacob’s Ladder does have something to say about PTSD—it’s not just camouflage, it’s a substantial part of the story Lyne and Bruce Joel Rubin tell. When Jacob is searching for those who dosed him with The Ladder, he’s told again and again to let it go—by doctors, his attorney, even the soldiers from his squadron. “The Army was part of another life. Let it lie.” He’s returned from the hell of war with a hell of a story, but no one wants to hear that story now that his heroic duty is done. He’s meant to just get on with life as if nothing ever happened. Just forget the trauma; his truth is an annoyance to everyone.
The film ends—after the staircase, after the triage—with a title card stating that the Army allegedly used the drug BZ (3-quinuclidinyl benzilate) on unsuspecting soldiers in Vietnam. BZ is what the military refers to as an incapacitating agent. A potent hallucinogen, BZ was designed to render combatants confused and lethargic, as well as cause severe, but temporary, memory loss. Similarly, MK-Ultra was a top-secret CIA project in which the agency conducted hundreds of covert experiments—sometimes on unwitting U.S. citizens—to assess the potential use of LSD and other drugs for information gathering, mind control, and psychological torture. Though Project MK-Ultra lasted from 1953 until about 1973, details of the illicit program didn’t become public until 1975, during a congressional investigation into widespread illegal CIA activities within the United States and around the world.
The program involved more than 150 human experiments involving psychedelic drugs, paralytics and electroshock therapy. Sometimes the test subjects knew they were participating in a study—but at other times, they had no idea, even when the hallucinogens started taking effect. Can you imagine the horror and confusion these poor people went through, thinking they were losing their minds? After this treatment, they possibly did lose their minds.
For Jacob, who never made it home from Vietnam, his purgatory was literal. For so many veterans, that purgatory is just a metaphor for the disturbing reality of life after war.
But before we’re dosed with this depressing detail, Jacob’s Ladder has does have a happy ending. Jacob sees Gabe standing at the foot of the stairs, waiting for him. Gabe holds his father’s head in his arms and comforts him, before whispering to him, “Let’s go up.” Jacob has finally made peace with the end of his life; he’s stopped burning his way through a battle he can never win. He takes Gabe’s hand and, together, they climb the stairs toward the unknowable landing place that awaits them.