In 1990, director Adrian Lyne’s hallucinogenic psychological horror film Jacob’s Ladder didn’t set the box office on fire, but it did win over critics and eventually became an influential cult classic in its own right. The movie took a trippy, nightmarish approach to PTSD for its Vietnam vet central character, and delivered one blindside of an ending. Unless, perhaps, you’re familiar with the biblical story from which the movie took its title.
The cult status of Jacob’s Ladder and its central themes of PTSD makes it ripe for a remake, and this year’s reimagining does attempt to contemporize the story. But the real question is whether this reimagining has a strong grasp on why the original has endured, and if it does enough with that information to create something strong enough to stand on its own.
Directed by David M. Rosenthal, and written by Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy, 2019’s Pet Sematary) and Sarah Thorpe, this iteration of Jacob’s Ladder opens with a grim depiction of life in Afghanistan for the soldiers stationed there. Among them, of course, is Jacob Singer (Michael Ealy), a trauma surgeon whose job is not for the weak stomached, as evidenced by the latest patient brought in with gaping flesh wounds that expose vulnerable innards. But when Jacob notices the patient’s distinct arm tattoo, he’s devastated with the realization that it’s his brother dying on his table.
Cut to present day, where Jacob is back home with his wife (Nicole Beharie) and newborn child and settling back into everyday life. He goes to therapy for PTSD and harbored guilt over a betrayal that led to estrangement with his deceased brother Isaac (Jesse Williams). Until he runs into Isaac’s former squad member, now homeless and deranged, who tells Jacob that his brother is still alive. That truth pulls Jacob into a paranoid conspiracy where nothing is as it seems.
Jacob’s Ladder pays homage to some of the memorable visuals of its predecessor. A couple moments of shaky faced spectres, the bathtub submersion, and the introduction of a drug that plays a major role. That’s essentially where the connections stop. Save for the mind-bending way it unravels its paranoid conspiracy, and a scant few distorted faces (only one really ghoulish face), the horror element is largely cast aside. This reimagining is more focused on paranoia and the relationship between Jacob and Isaac than it is creating a terrifying metaphor for PTSD via hallucinogenic descent into purgatory, or madness. It’s a thriller grounded by its familial relationships; how the Singer brothers’ past prior to their time in Afghanistan plays a part in their direct future.
Ealy and Williams fully commit to their roles; the trajectory of both Jacob and Isaac’s character arcs offers up a wide spectrum of emotions to explore. But no one else fares as well. Beharie, who once proved formidable on Sleepy Hollow and Black Mirror, is relegated to a plot device- she appears only as a prop to bolster either Jacob or Isaac’s narrative depending on the scene. Guy Burnet keeps things one note as the pharmacist with clearly harbored secrets.
Jacob’s Ladder is technically proficient, and presents a conspiracy thriller that focuses on the complicated relationship between brothers. But because that relationship winds up being the sole focus, any exploration on the effects of PTSD is lost and renders the end reveal unearned. In other words, this iteration doesn’t have any depth beyond Jacob and Isaac’s past hurts. This reimagining takes the horrors of war literally and drops any supernatural visuals, which in the end makes a strong case that Rosenthal’s version isn’t horror at all. It also doesn’t have much to say.
For those unfamiliar with the 1990 film and/or those who prefer their psychological thrillers grounded in realism, this might warrant a one-time watch. For anyone else, Jacob’s Ladder isn’t worth the climb.
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Author : Meagan Navarro
Publish date : 2019-07-31 19:07:38