A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Jacob's Ladder is a 1990 psychological horror movie in which Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam veteran experiencing hallucinations that cause him to question his very existence. There's frequent profanity, including "f--k," "motherf----r," and a racial slur in reference to the Vietcong. Brief nudity is seen: female breasts, male buttocks. One of Jacob's hallucinations concerns seeing a mysterious creature trying to penetrate his girlfriend while she's dancing at a party. A couple is shown reclined on a couch having sex at a party. Soldiers make jokes about masturbation and penis size. There's war violence, including soldiers shot and stabbed, soldiers going into spasms, and soldiers with their legs shot and dangling from their bodies. Some blood is seen. Suspense violence includes a car that explodes when a man tries starting it, and the lead character narrowly avoiding getting run over by a car. In the midst of one of his episodes, the lead character violently shoves his girlfriend, knocking her to the floor. The lead character has hallucinations, with monstrous imagery throughout. There's also some drinking and cigarette smoking.
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What's the story?
In JACOB'S LADDER, Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is an American combat medic stationed in Vietnam in 1971. His unit is attacked, and during the battle, some of the soldiers in his unit go into convulsions and seizures, and others freeze in a catatonic stupor. While trying to escape, Jacob is stabbed in the chest with a bayonet and falls to the jungle floor. Four years later, Singer works as a postman and lives in a tiny Brooklyn apartment with his girlfriend, Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena). One day, while returning home from work, Singer gets out at his subway stop and finds that the exits are blocked; as he crosses the tracks to try to get out on the other side, he's nearly struck by an incoming subway train. In addition to flashbacks of his near death in Vietnam, Singer begins to experience increasingly bizarre hallucinations. One of Singer's platoon mates, Paul, reaches out to him, and when they meet, Paul tells Jacob of the hallucinations that he too is experiencing; he suspects that the government is behind it. As Jacob digs deeper into finding out the truth, his reality grows increasingly disjointed and chaotic, as he tries to find out what exactly is happening to him.
Is it any good?
It shouldn't surprise anyone that this film has attained the status of "cult classic." Exploring themes of PTSD in Vietnam veterans, conspiracy theories involving the Pentagon testing out mind-altering substances on unknowing soldiers, the afterlife, and the very nature of existence itself, it's all but inevitable that this heady and unsettling horror movie would have its fair share of adherents valuing big ideas more than the basic blood-and-gore horror. Throw in some hallucinogenic monster visions straight out of Naked Lunch central casting on top, and the cultish appeal is complete.
It's a good movie in terms of style, substance, and execution, but not a great movie. Jacob's Ladder is a rare movie that somehow manages not to spell it out for you when the help is needed, and spells it out for you when you don't need it. The dreams within nightmares within dreams within death and dying, heaven, and hell get to be so disorienting and overwhelming, one can't be blamed for wanting to step away from this difficult and heavy vision and go for a walk on the beach, or smell the roses, or karaoke some Abba -- any reminder that life and existence aren't always this gray and ponderous. And as the significance of the name "Gabe" starts to become revealed, it's already so obvious what's happening that it feels like overkill. And yet, it's a solid movie overall, but the enjoyment and love of Jacob's Ladder is ultimately dependent upon how much you like these kinds of explorations of deep thought via psychological horror.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about psychological horror movies. How does Jacob's Ladder create scary moments through bizarre imagery and heady concepts, as opposed to horror movies that rely more on blood and gore?
What are some of the deeper themes this movie explores?
How is the Vietnam War conveyed, and how are Vietnam veterans represented? How does this compare to other Vietnam-themed movies?
- In theaters: November 2, 1990
- On DVD or streaming: February 26, 1998
- Cast: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello
- Director: Adrian Lyne
- Studio: TriStar Pictures
- Genre: Horror
- Run time: 113 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: Language, some violence, sexuality and drug content.
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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