Great Films You Need To See – Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about Adrian Lyne’s psychological horror Jacob’s Ladder was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

Psychological horror has long been the neglected offspring of a genre that too often falls back on lazy shocks, recycled storylines and dismembered body parts.

While its unfortunate protagonist is unable to separate reality from demonic hallucination, the unique and relentlessly creepy Jacob's Ladder can be viewed through a prism of nightmarish perceptions, all as valid as each other

While its unfortunate protagonist is unable to separate reality from demonic hallucination, the unique and relentlessly creepy Jacob’s Ladder can be viewed through a prism of nightmarish perceptions, all as valid as each other

Yet, it’s through this underused sub-genre that some of horror’s finest hours have emerged, not least of which the largely forgotten Jacob’s Ladder.

Jacob (Tim Robbins) fights for his life in Jacob's Ladder

Jacob (Tim Robbins) fights for his life in Jacob’s Ladder

Directed by Adrian Lyne, Jacob’s Ladder may seem like an odd fit in a filmography dominated by such libidinous titles as 9½ Weeks and Indecent Proposal, but makes more sense when you consider it followed his 1987 smash Fatal Attraction, a psychological horror in all but name that scared the shit out of men and riled feminists the world over.

Vietnam vet Jacob Singer’s (Tim Robbins) nightmares/flashbacks of a horrific incident during the war begin to bleed into his waking life when he experiences demonic visions that grow ever more disturbing and threatening. Jacob’s slippery grasp on reality is further corroded by his unwitting involvement in what appears to be a deadly military conspiracy seeking to silence him.

Just one of the nightmarish images in Jacob's Ladder

Just one of the nightmarish images in Jacob’s Ladder

Much like his tortured protagonist, Lyne never lets the viewer settle for more than a few minutes before taking a further step down the ladder towards hell. Best known at the time for supporting turns in Bull Durham and Cadillac Man (not forgetting Howard the Duck and Erik the Viking), Robbins brings a tragic innocence to the tortured Jacob, a psychologically scarred war vet who’s as terrified as he is confused by what he’s being forced to endure.

Jacob's (Tim Robbins) life falls apart in Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s (Tim Robbins) life falls apart in Jacob’s Ladder

What makes Jacob’s visions more frightening is the plausibility in which Lyne presents them. One woman appears to have filed-down horns which only become apparent when her hat slips, while a car trying to run him down contains the violently shaking masked figure he glimpsed earlier at the back of a subway train. Cronenbergian body horror is also used to phantasmagorical effect at a party where Jacob’s girlfriend Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña) is seemingly violated by a grotesque demon; and the unnerving hospital scene when an incapacitated Jacob is confronted by doctors who really don’t seem to have his best interests at heart.

The angelic chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello) in Jacob's Ladder

The angelic chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello) in Jacob’s Ladder

The film features a number of startling images, including a helicopter shot Oliver Stone would have been proud of and the haunting moment when a coin’s sudden movement spells doom for one character. Lyne’s inspirations for the film’s visual palette include the Oscar-winning 1962 short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and the austere work of artist Francis Bacon (in particular the film’s poster which shows a ghostly Jacob seemingly trapped in an abyss).

Jacob's (Tim Robbins) war buddy Paul (Pruitt Taylor Vince) confides in Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s (Tim Robbins) war buddy Paul (Pruitt Taylor Vince) confides in Jacob’s Ladder

Despite toning down Bruce Joel Rubin’s portentous script, the film is still cut through with Old Testament religious symbolism, from the title that refers to a chapter in Genesis in which the prophet Jacob dreams of a ladder ascending to heaven, to the overtly Biblical names (Jacob, Jezebel, his ex-wife Sarah, who in the Bible was Jacob’s grandmother, and son Gabe/Gabriel) and the angelic quality of Jacob’s chiropractor Louis (Danny Aiello).

A nasty spot for Jacob (Tim Robbins) in Jacob's Ladder

A nasty spot for Jacob (Tim Robbins) in Jacob’s Ladder

Louis’ citation to Jacob of Christian philosopher Meister Eckhart about devils really being angels freeing a soul that isn’t ready to let go not only strikes at the heart of Jacob’s tortured psyche, but is also a breadcrumb left by Lyne that provides one explanation of the film’s wider context.

While its unfortunate protagonist is unable to separate reality from demonic hallucination, the unique and relentlessly creepy Jacob’s Ladder can be viewed through a prism of nightmarish perceptions, all as valid as each other.

Great Films You Need To See – Bob Roberts (1992)

When the Tea Party movement was being formed following Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if its founders hadn’t gotten some twisted inspiration from Bob Roberts.

Although 20 years old, Tim Robbins’ scaborously satirical mock-umentary is arguably more prescient now than it was when it was released shortly before the 1992 election involving Bill Clinton and George Bush.

The themes explored in Bob Roberts are, alas, all too pertinent to what has played out before our eyes in each and every political race, where the politics of personality, fear, image and ignorance take precedence over reality and the issues that should really matter to the electorate.

Bob Roberts is “a bold, frightening and blackly satirical warning to a sleepwalking nation of the power of style over substance”

The film follows the campaign of Repubican senatorial hopeful Bob Roberts, a folk-singing self-made millionaire-turned “man of the people” and “leader of a generation”, according to his fanatical band of acolytes (including a young Jack Black in his feature debut as a Hitler youth-alike).

Roberts and his campaign team use a sympathetic media machine to push his rabidly right-wing agenda at the expense of the principled Democratic incumbent Senator Brickley Paiste (the late Gore Vidal), who “doesn’t see anybody at home” when looking into his opponent’s soul, but is unprepared for his opponent and, when tainted by a fabricated sex scandal naively proclaims that “this is America. Virtue always prevails”.

Roberts is hounded by an investigative reporter, Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito), who pertains to have evidence that the senatorial hopeful and his campaign chairman Lukas Hart (Alan Rickman) are involved in crooked deals and drugs despite peddling an anti-drugs message as part of his campaign.

As election day draws near, a seemingly tragic incident dramatically alters the public mood, but is everything as it appears?

Although there can be little doubt as to which side of the political fence Robbins sits, the vitriol of Bob Roberts is aimed more squarely at the political system as a whole. When the system is little more than the mouthpiece of big money and lobbyists, Robbins appears to argue, then it’s hardly surprising a figure as rotten as Roberts could rise up Omen-style from its darkest recesses.

The iconography of the 60s runs through the film like a stick of rock, most notably the work of  Bob Dylan. While Robbins clearly seems to pine for the ideals of that lost decade, he is shrewd enough to observe how what’s ‘cool’ from the 60s has been perverted and monetised by the morally and intellectually bankrupt, such as Roberts, for personal gain.

While declaring that “the 60s are, let’s face it, a dark stain on American history” during an interview on a morning chat show, Roberts churns out hate-filled folk records with such Dylan-aping titles as “The Freewheelin’ Bob Roberts”, “Times Are Changin’ Back” and “Bob on Bob”. He even reinvents Dylan’s iconic video to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as “The Wall Street Rap”, his paean to the pursuit of money.

Bob Dylan pastiche #1 in Bob Roberts

Bob Dylan pastiche #2 in Bob Roberts

Robbins takes the Dylan reference further by adopting the same verite-style of the classic 1967 documentary about the singer Don’t Look Back, while in one scene Roberts, who rides ahead of his campaign bus on a motorbike, falls off, aping a similar incident suffered by the folk legend in 1966.

The corporatisation of politics and its leaders is hardly a new phenomenon, but Robbins turns it all the way up to 11 here. When his campaign staff aren’t manning the phones pushing Roberts the politician from the confines of their battle bus, they’re pushing Roberts the businessman by trading stocks and shares.

Bob Roberts – the Tea Party’s wet dream come to life in Tim Robbins’ searing satire

While Robbins can get bogged down hammering home the point that politics and society at large has regressed from the idealism of the 60s to a more reactionary, less tolerant state, his debut film has become ever more pertinent and timely over the years. His portrayal of a media machine that wallows in trivia and allows subjectivity to superseed objectivty foretells the world of 24-hour rolling news and the likes of Fox News. Robbins also attacks the deliberate erosion of the divide between church and state, something that has now become de rigueur in politics since George W Bush and the advent of the Tea Party.

Robbins exudes an oily charisma as the titular firebrand, capturing the dead-eyed smile we’ve seen from so many politicians. Equally great is Rickman as the not-quite-human Hart and Ray Wise as Roberts’ svengali-esque campaign manager Chet MacGregor.

Bob Roberts is a bold, frightening and blackly satirical warning to a sleepwalking nation of the power of style over substance and the sobering observation that you often get the leaders you deserve.