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‘Ladder’ a rewarding, yet demanding film
By Brian Offenther

“JACOB’s Ladder” is in many ways exactly what it sets out to be, yet it suffers from its success.

A piece of good art — whether a play, sculpture, a music album, or in this case, a movie — utilizes all it can from its form’s distinct characteristics. For example, a play has among its strengths the presence of live performers (actors) who can change their performance by the atmosphere in the theater.

That’s something that can never be translated into a novel or a movie. So if you go and see a great play, it would almost certainly be big factors in its success. If not, the play might as well be adapted into something else.

“Jacob’s Ladder” certainly utilizes many of the things that make movies, well movies. The always great Tim Robbins gives a typically effective and intimate performance as a disturbed American veteran from the Vietnam War.


Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin’s story zooms between settings, including the battlefield in Vietnam, the claustrophobic streets of Brooklyn, New York, a sweaty dance floor, and a borderline surreal psych-ward.

Director Adrian Lyne uses smoke, switched-up film speeds, and disturbing special effects along the fringes of the frame to create a vague visual palette in this specific world.

It’s important to note that despite these positive attributes, the film was not very successful for a major studio Hollywood film when it was first released (US$26 million).

A major reason is that despite its effectiveness, one thing it lacks is something that is transferable, namely a narrative. Without it, critics struggle to write about “Jacob’s Ladder” and audience members have difficulty talking about it.

This ties into the other reason this film was likely overlooked: it’s a mood-piece, and it’s mood can best be described as agitated unease.

“Jacob’s Ladder” has some supernatural imagery that gets it lumped in with horror movies. However, its goal isn’t to scare the wits out of viewers, but to soak them in the icy waters of disturbance.

Almost by design, “Jacob’s Ladder” is a movie hard to describe in a review or any other form, with a dominant mood one rarely sees in a Hollywood release. That said, it does it very, very well.


 (Brian Offenther is a Shanghai-based DJ/freelancer.)

 ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (1990)

Where to see it: Dada, 115 Xingfu Rd

When to see it: August 5, 8pm

Price: Free

• What to see: Tim Robbins stars in this psychological thriller-cum-horror flick about an American-Vietnamese veteran disturbed by haunting, demonic images. Questions abound as he can no longer distinguish reality from dreams, memories and hallucinations. Written by Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost”) and directed by Adrian Lyne (“Flashdance,” “Fatal Attraction”)

Brian’s score: 9/10

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