Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: “Jacob’s Ladder”

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Next up on the horror docket are the sub-genres of psychological and surrealist horror. These are some of my personal favorites in horror, which made them inevitable for dissection this month. With that said, I had to choose a film that incorporated both of these two sub-genres to discuss them. So I searched through my memory and had an immediate revelation that Jacob’s Ladder (1990), directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Tim Robbins, was the film to display such genres. The reason was simple: I had a fond memory of this film and was stricken by its elements the moment I saw it. So this made me not only want to review it, but I wanted to understand the film. I wanted to understand why the film had such a powerful effect on me and the average viewer in general.

To define these genres briefly: psychological horror is a film that deals with the psyche of characters in order to horrify (ex. A person devolving into madness). Surrealism is a genre that relies more on imagery or experiences that are out of this world (ex. Creature being cared for as if an ordinary child).   

*Spoilers ahead*

The Transition: To begin, the transition between Jacob’s military service and the subway station is perfection. The chaos that is created, seemingly at random, is a fundamental recurrence in this film. We see that everyone in his military unit has either began firing at random or is vibrating (common in the film). The transition occurs when Jacob (Tim Robbins), gets stabbed and wakes up on the subway in New York.

The Subway: The “subway” scene is one of the best sequences in Jacob’s Ladder, encapsulating the entire film into a single scene. The reason it is an encapsulation is due to its horrific imagery (vibrating people/props), the characters psyche (dream vs. reality), and the atmosphere (dirty environment). Jacob also sees a sign that reads, “Hell,” which is an advert for a drug hotline. The sign has a deeper meaning, since it feels almost hesitated upon by Jacob.

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When Jacob walks around the subway station and finds that the exit to the subway is gated off, it seems it is also a metaphoric concept. If we juxtapose the specific scene with the last scene, everything becomes clearer. The horrific imagery is shown with an atmosphere attached, it is not one or the other. In this scene, the environment plays a key role in the horror and it also immerses the viewer before horror even comes (which displays the horror styling throughout the entire film). The main character is heavily relied upon through this sequence, which is also true about the entire film. We establish our enjoyment of this character in the scene, although we only know a few things about him at this point.

The Structure: The film does not have a conventional structure, although it certainly seems like it at first. The film breaks itself into random bursts of chaos (as previously stated). The film has surrealistic moments — moments that seem to be completely devoid of reality. It creates a dream-like structure that was created through a precedence of previous horror films, like Vampyr. The filmic structure is constantly played upon, which makes it a bit dissimilar with its narrative. And the narrative seems to be on a constant unraveling, as it is tied to the unconventional structure until the end (to a more uplifting finale).

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The Acting: The acting is strong, and all of the actors are extremely skilled at their craft. Tim Robbins is my personal favorite; it feels like he understands the role and what it entails. He also succeeds in giving personality to the character, making us have an instant connection to his humanity. I believe the scene that can prove this is when Jacob tries to reveal that the military had a scheme on the Vietnam mission that his unit suffered through. His pleas feel completely natural, and when the members of his unit abandon his lawsuit, we feel his emotion and anger.

The female lead, Jezebel Pipkin (Elizabeth Peña), is also strong in her performance, and feels natural in Jacob’s life. Her presence in the film is completely organic, and has moments where she heavily implies an aspect of demonic origins. When she is revealed in the “surgery” scene, it comes as a shock, and her stark expression is mystifying. Mr. Geary (Jason Alexander) is also strong in the film, fleshing out the world through his character. His reactions feel genuine and his delivery does not feel forced, which could have buried his character’s purpose.    

Cinematography: The cinematography is important to our connection and investment, employing a large amount of shots and angles. The film utilizes these shots in order to fashion an intensity to the film and to stay specifically close to our main character. The camera uses many close-ups and eye-levels to make us deeply connected to our main character. For example, in the “palm-reading” scene, we are presented with a close-up of our characters hand, which is used to briefly mention that our character is “already dead.” The eye-level of Jacob in the bathtub is another shot that attaches us to our character through proximity and feeling. The eye-level also looks directly at the audience, with an expression of suffering.

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An angle that’s used is the canted angle, which is commonly used in horror. Although, the use for this canted angle was specifically to attach a feeling to the audience through our main character (feeling terrible after his fever). Camera movement is also incorporated to effect the audience, such as zooms. The zooms are typically used in fast-paced scenes to show the distress in a situation, like when Jacob is chased by the car and the camera zooms in to watch his legs. Finally, the use of slow-motion in the finale of the film creates emotion to a harsh reveal (showing the members of the unit murdering each other).  

Mise-en-scène:  The lighting is one of the most important elements in conveying horror, putting emphasis and creating a “dominant” in the film. It feels that the low-key lighting is used to mediate and entrap the figure it is placing emphasis upon. This could also display the inner “darkness” of the entity by being engulfed in the darkness. Although, low-key seems to be a primary addition, it is not completely utilized in the film. We see that there is a combination of high-key, low-key, and high contrast.

The film also is more tightly framed throughout, creating a closed-off and tense environment. Finally, the placement in each scene seems to be controlled and purposeful. Each of the placements and purposes seems to be of the director’s vision, taking “the auteur theory” in action. I saw this specifically with the “hospital ride” sequence, which had a loose wheel on the gurney moving sporadically. The wheel was meant to be in this motion because of the emphasis the wheel gives off creating deeper meaning.

Conclusion: This film has a unique and brilliant way of tapping into a person’s psyche in order to challenge the viewer to unravel narrative. The intricate usage of filmic elements creates the horror, rather than making it simple and instantaneous. Overall, these elements paid off extraordinarily and I do not believe this film disappoints.

4.5 out of 5

— Christian Mietus, Film Blogger

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