Welcome to the JOE-DOWN, a back-and-forth movie review blog by two snarky newspapermen named Joe from Minnesota, Joe Froemming and Joe Brown. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “Jacob’s Ladder.”
The Movie: “Jacob’s Ladder”
Starring: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello
Director: Adrian Lyne
Plot Summary: (From IMDB) Mourning his dead child, a haunted Vietnam War veteran attempts to uncover his past while suffering from a severe case of dissociation. To do so, he must decipher reality and life from his own dreams, delusions and perceptions of death.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 69 percent
This week, I thought we needed something a little more serious. So, bring on Vietnam and a dead child!
“Jacob’s Ladder” has long been a movie I’ve been intrigued with but never got around to seeing. I knew about the ending, knew about the infamous hospital scene but everything else was kind of a mystery.
Plus, this movie always brings up some chuckles when I listen to “How Did This Get Made” and co-host Jason Mantzoukas brings up “Jacob’s Ladder” scenarios.
While I prepare my ice bath, what was your initial thoughts heading into this one, Froemming?
Billy Pilgrim Jacob Singer has become unstuck in time.
Wait, no, that is “Slaughterhouse-Five,” a tale of a war veteran who somehow jumps around different times in his life, including his trauma during war…
OK, so “Jacob’s Ladder” kinda borrows from the classic Vonnegut book, but is pretty different in dramatic ways. I couldn’t help but bring this up at the start.
Now I too had never seen this movie. I knew the ending, but that was about it. Hell, I didn’t even know Tim Robbins and Lewis Black were in this movie. It is one of those movies I probably would never had seen had it not been for the JOE-DOWN.
Did I like it? Well, we will find that out along the way. Now Brown, as I tend this bayonet wound I got while tripping balls on a drug the military gave me, why don’t you kick this off.
Brown: In what I think is the opening to EVERY Vietnam movie ever made, we open with a shot of helicopters, which makes me think of Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon,” a song that I sing the chorus to every time something goes wrong in the newsroom.
We’re on the Mekong and we’re introduced to combat medic Jacob Singer (Robbins) as he’s taking a dump in the woods. … I would have been OK with virtually any other way to introduce a character but sure.
That’s how I felt about seeing a man take a dump in the woods right off.
Brown: There’s some toilet humor among squad mates which does show this as a rather tightly-knit unit. That is, until there’s a call about movement in the trees.
Then this movie gets REAL spastic and confusing. This will be a theme for the next 90-plus minutes.
Froemming: Well, the soldiers begin to get real sick, some vomiting and others probably crapping their pants as the VC come charging in, killing a bunch of them at their weakest moments.
So it goes.
Jacob gets stabbed in the belly with a bayonet, a memory we get flashes of more and more of as this is the big trauma he experienced in the war. He blinks and wakes up in a subway in New York City dressed like a mailman. And nothing curbs the whole “mailman-goes-postal” concept like an unhinged vet who hallucinates all the time.
Brown: My high-school girlfriend’s dad was a Vietnam vet that worked for the Post Office. He was cool to me, but I’d be lying if I said that thought never crossed my mind.
Yeah, that Vietnam start gets you real shook, especially the dude whose leg was mangled since that was an image we’ve all come across thanks to the Boston Marathon bombing.
So we’re in the subway in 1975 and while Jacob walks out of the train car, we see a person sleeping and Jacob catches a glimpse of a tail.
I think The Lizard fell onto hard times after losing to Spider-Man.
Froemming: Look, that is just the norm of a subway ride in the Big Apple. I don’t know why this was so shocking. I’d rather see a tail than some pervert leering at me in a trench coat.
Jacob finds himself trapped in the subway, as all the doors are locked and he has no real way out. And that’s when it hit me: The guy is dead.
Great movie, let’s hit recommendations!
Brown: Yeah, no. We still have like 80 minutes after this scene.
Froemming: *looks at watch* Oh boy. OK.
So he is mucking around in the subway trying to find a way out and decides to walk across the tracks, which I believe there would be many signs down there warning against. And then a train comes along, with distorted faces staring at him from the windows and it was almost exactly like the part in “Pink Floyd’s The Wall” where a train goes by and the young protagonist sees distorted faces on a train…
Brown: We see distorted faces several times in this movie that look like they’d come from any Tool music video from the ‘90s. I’d like to think they were taking the train to the set of “Sober.”
Now, when one crosses train tracks, you wouldn’t walk across like you’re trying to sneak up on someone. But Jacob does that.
AND THEN, when you see a train, one would hustle. Jacob, meanwhile, waddles back and forth on the track. Seriously, how did he last in VIetnam as long as he did? He’s got a (REDACTED) master’s degree and he doesn’t get the concept of hurrying your ass up to get off the subway tracks.
He FINALLY manages to find an exit and goes to his girlfriend’s apartment. And this is where “Jacob’s Ladder” becomes what I affectionately called it: “The Sixth Sense” with a lot of boobs.
Froemming: Never seen “The Sixth Sense,” but I assume it doesn’t have boobs from your joke there, just Bruce Willis in a weird wig.
Brown: Yeah, that’s the gist of it.
Froemming: So his girlfriend, Jezzie, says his wife or ex-wife (I am not sure on their status) was going to toss out some photos but I think one of his kids dropped by. And one of the photos is of his youngest son, Kevin McCallister, who was tragically murdered by The Wet Bandits who broke into his house when his parents forgot him on a trip to Paris.
This causes Jacob to start crying. So Jezzie does what normal people do and throws the photos in the incinerator.
Brown: On the whole, I like the character of Jezzie. I, however, must ask what parent thinks to themself as they hold their newborn daughter in the palm of their hands “Let’s name her Jezebel. That will in no way get her made fun of in the public school system.” She also thinks the names of Jacob’s other kids, Eli and Jed are very weird… not really. And yeah, until it makes sense later, I thought it was a massive overreaction to burn photos of your boyfriend’s children in the most precious time in their lives in the incinerator because one happened to make Jacob cry.
I dunno. Maybe I just avoided the “burn your mementos” types in the dating world and should count my blessings.
So Jacob works at the Post Office with Jezzie, and he decides to take a short day like he is Newman from “Seinfeld,” and hits the mean streets of pre-hipster Brooklyn. And as he is wandering down an alley, some out-of-control car careens toward him, trying to run him over.
And again, he sees the distorted faces in the window. This man shouldn’t be flipping burgers, let alone handling important mail.
Brown: When Jacob was trying to run from the car, all I could think of was Archer screaming “SERPENTINE.” So this scene was funnier than it had any right to be.
Before this happens, we see Jacob getting his back readjusted by Louis, his chiropractor. This just reminded me that I REALLY want to go see a chiropractor. Jacob remarks that Louis looks like a big chereb. Remember that later.
Also, in a throwaway scene, we see a group of black women see Jacob walking down the street and start singing The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.” Just once I want to be serenaded by a group of young women. Maybe journalism isn’t the life for me. I’ll see if the Post Office is hiring.
Froemming: I liked Louis, he gives us more hints that Jacob might be dead and he is much less racist than he was in “Do The Right Thing.”
After this, Jacob goes to the hospital to see Dr. Carlson. And the old nurse tells him there is no Dr. Carlson, and in fact, there is no record of Jacob. Literally one of those panic-inducing nightmares people have from time to time.
Brown: Doesn’t help when Jacob sees the nurse is growing horns out of her head.
Froemming: I tend to not stare at others’ medical issues, Brown. It’s rude.
What does Jacob do? Why he makes a scene and storms to where he thinks his doctor is, only to find a dirty hippie doing a therapy session.
The hippie tells him Dr. Carlson died in a car explosion. Was Dr. Carlson really Sam “Ace” Rothstein from “Casino?” Also, if this doctor was real, why no records of Jacob? Did the devil nurse destroy them?
Brown: I was ready for Jacob to come down on the hospital like the hammer of Thor.
After a trying visit to the hospital, Jacob decides to party! Well, I think it was more Jezzie’s idea but lo and behold, we’re at a bumpin’ NYC house party. And of course, women are flirting with Tim Robbins, which is the most unbelievable part of this movie. A woman reads Jacob’s palm and tells him he’s dead. So if the subway and the hospital visit weren’t enough, the movie more or less tells you here.
Froemming: This movie beats you over the head with it. Jacob is told many times by people and doctors that he is, in fact, dead.
Brown: Then, Jacob starts getting antsy and paranoid and starts seeing shady people. So, you know, par for the course any time I’ve gone to a house party. Then it starts diving into the weird with the head-shaking thing this movie popularized and Jezzie grinding up on what looks like a lizard tail.
So again, par for the course for any house party I’ve gone to.
Froemming: This was all I could think of during this scene.
Par for the course of every party I’ve been to.
Brown: Whether because of the terrifying images or the strobe lights, Jacob starts screaming and having ‘Nam flashbacks, which horrifies Jezzie because he made a scene. Nice priorities.
It turns out that Jacob is running a 106-degree temperature and he needs an ice bath NOW. Why Jezzie tore off Jacob’s underwear when it was unnecessary (especially because I didn’t want to see Tim Robbins’ ass), I’ll never know.
While having himself a soak, Jacob remembers being found after the bayonet stabbing, in the dead of night with his guts nearly spilling out just waiting for any help to arrive. Yikes.
Froemming: He then wakes up next to his ex-wife Sarah (or wife, still do not know) in the past, when young Kevin is still alive before is goofy traps set for The Wet Bandits cut him down in his prime. He complains it is too cold in the bedroom (ice bath, get it?).
Look, I need it cold when I sleep. Hell, I open my window in the winter to get a cold breeze to knock me out. I am on #TeamSarah here.
Brown: Count me in as #TeamSarah as well.
Back in the real world… is it the real world? I don’t know how to describe it…
Either way, Jacob comes back from the ice bath. He starts describing what he saw in his flashback and Jezzie, not one for tact, refers to Gabe as “the dead one.” A quick lesson to everyone out there: When talking to friends or lovers, don’t EVER refer to a deceased kid as “the dead one.” You will justifiably get punched in the nose.
Then Jezzie gets on Jacob’s ass about going outside and doing something instead of reading. I mean, I get the idea of avoiding some cabin fever, but he’s reading. There’s a lot worse things to do.
And she also has a brief moment of looking like a lizard person which is both jarring and more fodder for the dumbest conspiracy theory in human history.
Froemming: I am thinking “American Dad” was onto something.
Jacob gets a call from his old war buddy Paul, whom he meets at a bar. Paul is all paranoid, talking about seeing creatures and being followed, which is what is happening to Jacob. And when they walk to Paul’s car, we see someone is following them. And Paul gets into his car and BOOM! Like a Las Vegas mafioso, he is blown to bits by what looks like a car bomb.
His death will bring the old platoon back together again. I didn’t know Marsellus Wallace was in the war, but here we are.
Brown: Was it just me or was Paul’s eyes moving an uncomfortable amount? Whether that was my own imagination from watching this movie or something the filmmakers actually did, I like how much this movie finds ways to (REDACTED) with you and make you feel uneasy.
Froemming: I believe that is just how the actor’s eyes are. I’ve seen him in other movies and his eyes do the same thing.
Brown: Yeah, just Googled it. The actor, Pruitt Taylor Vince, has a condition that involves involuntary eye movement. I feel like a jerk now, but I will say it works to the movie’s benefit.
Froemming: I am so embarrassed by you right now.
Anyway, at Paul’s funeral, we find everyone in the platoon is sort of experiencing the same thing and it traces back to the day Paul was gutted in the war and they all got sick. But what can they do? The U.S. government is too powerful to take on. Well, to find out what the hell happened to them that day (they do not remember) they hire George Costanza as their lawyer to look into it. Look, this is already a mistake, this is how the guy works:
Brown: Just as quickly as the lawsuit idea was put together, it falls apart as the rest of the platoon decides to drop it. Wanting answers, Jacob confronts Mr. Geary about why the case fell apart. Turns out, while doing research Geary found documents that the platoon was never in combat and were discharged for psychological reasons. This infuriates Jacob, who has honorable discharge papers and what-not in his possession and he pushes Geary against the wall.
I figure after this experience, Mr. Geary, fearful of retaliation from unstable Army soldiers left his practice, changed his name to George Costanza and began working for the New York Yankees.
I didn’t watch “Seinfeld” so I’m officially making this my head canon.
Froemming: Jacob calls his platoon buddies, but they want no part of this thing. He doesn’t talk to George here (Ving Rhames) but I imagine this is what he would have told him.
So now Jacob is on his own.
And as he walks along the street one day, a car pulls up and kidnaps him. This is how I imagine what it was like when Paul Manafort was arrested: Government guys in suits nabbing him off the street in an unmarked car. Jacob, though, is one bad hombre and starts knocking the snot out of these future Trump Administration cabinet members and jumps out of a speeding car, wrecking his back.
Oh, and a guy dressed like Santa steals his wallet.
Brown: I don’t know about you, but I laughed so hard when I saw Santa robbing Jacob. May be my favorite scene in the movie.
With his back all sorts of messed up, Jacob is laid up in the hospital where Sarah, Jed and Eli come and visit him, hinting at a reconciliation. Soon enough, Jacob will be able to change that embarrassing “It’s Complicated” Facebook relationship status back to “Married.”
But, not before going through Hell’s hospital.
While all this is happening, I had two prevailing thoughts. 1. All this for a back injury? And 2. Jacob is DEFINITELY getting an infection from this place.
Froemming: Welcome to Obama’s America.
Poor Jacob gets strapped to a bed where Jezzie and some other doctors look like they are about to
torture enhanced interrogate him. This whole scene was creepy as hell, especially the doctor with no eyes. That guy was straight out of “Hellraiser.”
Brown: It’s a scene that inspired the “Silent Hill” video game franchise and an Avenged Sevenfold music video, among other things.
Thank God after this, while Jacob is laid up in a crappy hospital, his old chiropractor buddy Louis barges in and threatens to beat the hell out of the staff and gets Jacob out of the hospital.
Brown: I think this guy believes so deeply in being a chiropractor that he would fire bomb a hospital like Joker in “The Dark Knight” for even suggesting modern medicine is better.
As Louis readjusts Jacob, he reads an Eckhart passage about how the only thing that burns in hell is what you won’t let go of in life to try and free your soul. Once you’ve made peace, the devils are really angels.
Then the photo burning makes sense. And the lizards. And the Tool music video characters.
This is a great revelation. It would be better if the (REDACTED) movie didn’t say all the damn time “Hey Jake, you’re dead LOL.” Or however the kids would say it on Instagram.
Back at Jezzie’s apartment, Jacob receives a phone call from someone who may have answers. It turns out, the man who helped pull Jacob away from Paul’s burning car and was also the medevac in the ‘Nam flashbacks by the name of Michael Newman. An old hippie who got busted for making LSD, Newman got put into the Army’s chemical warfare division where he made The Ladder: a combat drug that increases aggression. A dose was given to Jacob’s unit and turned everyone into undiscriminating John Rambos. It turns out, the bayonet to Jacob’s gut was from an American soldier that was more high than Afroman.
Froemming: Newman said they just slaughtered one another like nothing he had ever seen. Again, Jacob is dead here. And Jacob returns to the apartment, only to find himself alone. And he allows his past to burn in his mind, wakes up and sees Kevin. This is the moment he was working toward, his ladder if you will. He weeps into Kevin’s arms and the boy says it is time to go upstairs. As they walk up a light flashes and a bucket full of rocks swings down and smashes Jacob in the face, one of Kevin’s pranks that were never set off, killing Jacob instantly.
Brown: I mean, sure. It would fit this narrative.
We go to Vietnam and see Jacob finally succumbing to his bayonet wound (which I was kind of shocked to see bayonets were still a thing in Vietnam). The whole movie we watched, nothing more than a fever dream from a man on the verge of dying.
And to emphasize the gravity of the movie we just watched, we get the white-text-on-black-screen message about Vietnam soldiers allegedly being dosed with a hallucinogen.
This… was a dour experience that makes me wish I had picked a kid’s movie about pirates. Instead, we got a month of horror movies coming.
Froemming: Well, this movie ruined my afternoon. Let’s climb the ladder up to recommendations.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Brown: Yes I would. Again, it is a dour experience but it’s a great thriller movie that can dive into some horror elements. Don’t watch it on a date or anything.
Froemming: Yes, this was a fantastic movie. It is a hard watch, the story is really depressing, but it is definitely worth your time.