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Movie review: A “Jacob’s Ladder (2019)” To Nowhere

Wednesday, August 28, 2019 | Review


Starring Joseph Sikora, Jesse Williams, and Michael Ealy
Directed by David M. Rosenthal
Written by Jeff Buhler and Sarah Thorpe
Vertical Entertainment

It’s easy to forget that there was once a time when, if the government had been carrying out weaponized pharmaceutical tests that resulted in the violent deaths of an entire regiment of soldiers, people would have been shocked. Nowadays, we take it as a given that politicians can’t be trusted, D.C. is a hotbed of corruption, and war is almost never really about defending our various civil liberties. But these now commonly accepted truths were an eye-watering bitch-slap to the generation who came of age during the 60s/70s and witnessed the death of American exceptionalism in real-time. The Vietnam War and Watergate Scandal caused a profound ideological shift and altered how Americans viewed both themselves and those who they had placed in power, while cinema became its own battleground for working through the feeling of helplessness that came to characterize those touched by the conflict and its aftermath.

 From this moment came stone-cold classics (THE DEER HUNTER, APOCALYPSE NOW) and paranoid political thrillers (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR) that explored the cruelties of the American war machine and the overwhelming sense of distrust that the federal government had sown in its people. Sometime later, director Adrian Lyne’s psychological horror film, JACOB’S LADDER (1990) tapped from these two strains and filtered them through the Old Testament and Tibetan Book of The Dead while blending in the concerns of its cinematic forbears for a stunning vision of the psychic toll war wreaks upon the transcendent human spirit.

David M. Rosenthal’s remake is interested in absolutely none of that. An unenthusiastic “thriller” that trades the Vietnam era’s loss-of-innocence for the cynicism of the War in Afghanistan, JACOB’S LADDER (2019) is a literal-minded and outward-looking reskinning of Lyne’s elliptical and introspective journey through hell that’s as pointless as it is dull. 

Michael Ealy (THE INTRUDER) stars as Jacob Singer, a veteran who returns home to his wife (Nicole Beharie) in Atlanta deeply disturbed at having lost his brother (Jesse Williams) in battle. Though he does his best to return to normal life as a trauma surgeon, unsettling hallucinations and his addled former squadmates threaten to drag him into a mystery that he seems to be a key player in. 

I typically bristle at critiquing a remake solely for how it differs from the original, but this JACOB’S LADDER presents a unique challenge as it does so little of its own that’s notable. Whereas Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay for the 1990 film was full of big ideas, Jeff Buhler and Sarah Thorpe’s approximation of the same is packed with worn-out plot points. Not only have better horror flicks tussled with the cultural attitudes and collective trauma of post-9/11 America, but even the least-esteemed among them (your SAWs and HOSTELs) have more to say about where we were then than Rosenthal and company can manage in a film that’s meant to directly address it. JACOB’S LADDER (2019) may bill itself as an exploration of PTSD in the modern era, but there’s no interest in the interiority of Jacob’s experience here–at least not in the visually evocative way you’d expect from a film that cribs its name from one of the most accomplished allegorical horror films of all time. The dingy green filter overlaying the images feels like a cheap attempt to add immediacy and grit, and the wholly uninspired hallucination sequences are a far cry from Lyne’s squidgy Francis Bacon and Diane Arbus inspired monstrosities. 

Ealy is a fine enough lead, but per usual, he’s something of a personality void. Beharie doesn’t fare much better in the thankless and underwritten role of “concerned wife,” and while Williams brings the most to the table, it’s hardly worth mentioning when the meal is this meager. Though the entire Afghan War plotline is at once dated and underfed, there is a more modern, Big Pharma element to the story that–had it been better developed–may have at least made for interesting viewing. As it stands, this is a paint-by-numbers conspiracy story that feels more akin to what’s found in the prime-time block of any major television network (it would easily be improved by a 45-minute runtime plus commercial breaks) than the challenging and stylish cult film whose name it shares. 

Ultimately, JACOB’S LADDER (2019) doesn’t just fail to justify its existence, but seems to misunderstand the movie it’s based on to the point of insult. Lyne’s film is no more a “Vietnam movie” than 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is a “Sci-fi movie.” It uses a moment of profound cultural and political crisis as a means to wrestle with human nature and life, itself beyond time and place. Tim Robbins’ Jacob’s helplessness in the face of The Establishment’s cruel disregard mirrors his (and our) helplessness in the face of eternity. Conversely, the soft-headed, Alex Jonesian, conspiracy-oriented nature of Buhler and Thorpe’s script and the abject literalness of Rosenthal’s approach seem to point to an almost willful ignorance of both modern-day skepticism and the sense of tragic transcendence the original film was aiming for. JACOB’S LADDER (2019) has nothing to say about our current socio-political moment, even less to say about the soul, and to call it a remake is to give it too much credit. 

Rocco T. Thompson
Rocco is a Rondo-nominated film journalist and avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous. He penned the cover story for Rue Morgue's landmark July/Aug 2019 "Queer Fear" Special Issue, and is an associate producer on In Search of Darkness: Part III, the latest installment in CreatorVC's popular 1980s horror documentary series.