A Life Force in the Darkness
When I was casting Daniel Isn’t Real, I would talk to the actors I met about Tim Robbins’ performance in Jacob’s Ladder. The way, for me, it exemplified the contrast between a thematically bleak world and the expression of a character’s inner life. Ironically, the one actor I couldn’t do this with was the one I cast; Miles Robbins, my lead, is Tim’s son. I couldn’t point to that performance without chaining him to his dad, and so I had to find other ways to reference the particular energy I was looking for. That particular aliveness. And so we talked, among other things, about Rocky.
Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder takes place in a New York that is literally hell. Yet, in a world of death and trauma and fear, Tim Robbins is alive. He’s no walking corpse — he’s energetic, kinetic, and sexy. Check out the eyes the palm reader gives him at a party. “And a sense of humor, too,” she grins. “I like that!”
Jacob is alive despite his struggle to process the violence of Vietnam. He is alive despite the fact that his son is dead — despite the fact that he is dead. There’s a tension between the performance and the setting: the rich humanness of the character and the inhuman cosmic horror of his situation. And this tension is where the movie finds its magic. We see it in the first few seconds as, strolling through the brutal Vietnam jungle, he laughs giddily while all the other GI’s mock him.
There are two crucial elements of a horror movie I look for: how it makes you feel, and how the horror resolves itself. So how does Jacob’s Ladder make me feel? Terrified, anxious, overwhelmed, and yet elated, excited, and engaged. But better than any other movie I can think of, it replicates the ongoing feeling of living with trauma.
I thought of Jacob’s Ladder the other day as I was making a Spotify playlist to celebrate the election. Let’s hit these LA streets and honk!! “Born in The USA” led me to “This is America.” Then the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” in a nod to mail-in ballots. Jacob is a mailman, too. And I flashed on the incredible scene when a group of teen girls skip up from their stoop serenade him with this song. Like a coy Greek chorus, surrounded by the filth and smoke and rust of their urban inferno. For a few bars of an old pop song, there’s joy.
Then I flashed back to the 2016 election. To that shock of displacement. Suddenly, you are in an alien world that is somehow still your home. I remember saying to my friend, “I’ve been thinking of Jacob’s Ladder.” She said she’d been, too. It captures the feeling of a worsening. None of us escape it. I felt it during my most painful breakups. I felt it during the days and weeks and months following the death of my mother 17 years ago.
Jacob felt it in Vietnam. He felt it when his child died. He felt it when his marriage collapsed. He felt it when he was stabbed in the guts with a bayonet. These moments are embodied in the life force of Robbins’ performance. No matter how much he smiles, no matter how much he grooves to James Brown, there are demons behind every pane of glass and on every dance floor.
Even the sets are alive. Daylight exteriors teem with smoke or steam. Moody interiors with their clutter and photographs and rotary phones with the life of decades piled on top of them.
The visual style of Jacob’s Ladder was part of a cinematic movement. In the ’80s, British directors who had come up in the advertising world brought a fierce new style to genre films. Tony Scott’s The Hunger, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, and Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder all share a vibe: the smoke, the backlight, the patina of a city’s decay.
For that, give credit to the masterful production designer of all three films: Brian Morris. His sets don’t simply reflect the character, they communicate to the character. A sentient environment saying “This is hell! Look around you … and accept it!”
Prior to these films, Morris was the production designer on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Compare the rush of Alan Parker’s train filled with school kids to Lyne’s demonic subway; the staggering swimming pool of blood to the shaking Baconian demons; or the damp backlit stadium to the layout of ’70s New York. All of this design says, as the doctor does, “This is your home, you’re dead.” Jacob protests to ex-wife Sara, “I’m not dead, I’m alive!” And the doctor’s voice emanates from the wall itself: “DREAM ON!”
But is it a dying man’s dream? Is it a drug trip? Is it a metaphysical journey through the bardo of dying into non-being? It doesn’t matter. All the answers track emotionally. What matters is the feeling of horror, of that masterful, influential, hellish hospital sequence, and of that horror’s resolution — Jacob absorbing his demons to find peace.
The terror of death powers Jacob’s fear of recognizing the truth. This is horror not in that we are afraid of being stabbed to death but instead we are afraid of what will happen after we’ve been killed. The inciting incident — not the climax — is Jacob being murdered. But the real fear, the enduring fear, is a cosmic one; how to face the unthinkable, the unknowable. The inevitable.
But for all its horror, Jacob’s Ladder is also about peace. The struggle to find it and the sacrifices demanded to achieve it.
When Jacob confides to Jezzie that he is seeing demons, she tells him, “Don’t make them into something they’re not.” This is played as a dismissal or even a lie. But she’s not wrong. In a deleted scene, Jezzie reveals herself to be a demonic entity, and the entity, in turn, reveals itself to be Jacob himself.
By cutting that vivid scene, Lyne gives Jacob a night-long internal meditation. And when the sun rises, Jacob is ready to follow his dead son up to nonbeing.
Jacob’s fight rages from the Vietnam War to a metaphysical battle. And it only stops when he accepts death.
“He looks peaceful,” says an army doctor, standing over his corpse, “but he fought like hell.” He fought to be alive. Which is exactly why the movie demands the life force of Robbins’ performance. Every moment we’ve seen has been Jacob fighting to be alive, which is why it demands a performance crackling with an unending life force.
It was not easy to restrain myself from bringing this all up, even in passing, to Miles. After all my obsession in making a movie like Daniel — about isolation and depression — is to spite the theme though an affirmation of life. But then, five days into rehearsal, Miles paused in the middle of a scene (I’ll let you guess which one) and said “This reminds me of Jacob’s Ladder.”
“Jacob’s Ladder?” I said, keeping it cool. Miles said that movie was one of the reasons he wanted to do our project. He’d recognized the homage to one of his favorites of his father’s movies.
So we laughed and we talked about it, and continued trying to build our own life force up out of the darkness.
Adam Egypt Mortimer is an LA-based writer+director, who made Daniel Isn’t Real, Some Kind of Hate, and the upcoming Archenemy which releases December 11, 2020. Chat with him on Twitter.