Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Directed by Adrian Lyne
Friday, November 9, at 92YTribeca, part of its Basic Cable Classics series
Director Lyne (Unfaithful, Fatal Attraction) rarely gets enough credit for his direction of Bruce Joel Rubin’s infamously too-great-to-produce screenplay. But Lyne and Rubin’s collaboration was essential to making Ladder as terrifying as it is. For example, Lyne’s influential “Vibroman” technique, an in-camera special effect in which speeding up the film speed to 4 frames-pers-second makes bag ladies and Vietnam veterans look like demons. Likewise, the way that Lyne situated Rubin’s narrative in a more a terrestrial setting was a small but essential change. Had Tim Robbins’s Jacob Singer, a Vietnam vet and PhD-holding postman, seen glimpses of Hell or Heaven beyond the deformed lizard-demons and angelic chiropractors that he meets on the still-grimy streets of 1990 Brooklyn—watch for the Bergen F stop!—Jacob’s Ladder would almost certainly have been less potent.
Lyne and Rubin made for a great team, but in this case, neither auteur’s contribution is more important than the other’s. Rubin’s elliptical narrative structure provides the film with its gnarled spine, skillfully transitioning from wartime flashbacks to memories of Jacob’s ex-wife (Patricia Kalember) and son (a very young Macaulay Culkin) and then back to “real world” experiences with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Pena). But without Lyne’s clear-eyed direction, particularly during action-intensive scenes like Jacob’s ice-water bath and the infamous James Brown-scored dance scene, those scenes wouldn’t be nearly as gutting. Rubin’s contributions outside of scripting Jacob’s Ladder should similarly not be dismissed. His unexpected success with Ghost—a script that he sold and was a big hit in spite of the industry rule that “ghost pictures” weren’t profitable—really helped to get Jacob’s Ladder green-lit. But in valorizing Rubin’s contributions over Lyne’s, we forget that both men’s work has been never been as good since then. And yes, that includes both Deadly Friend and the 1997 Lolita remake.