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Jacob’s Ladder (1990): The Ending

By Jim Rohner · October 24, 2011

Being a director is tough.  Not only are directors responsible for every aspect of production from locations, to casting, to costumes, to camera placement, but from time to time they're also charged with translating the esoteric and metaphysical into a series of moving images that will be tangible and understandable to the movie-going audience.  In 1991, David Cronenberg directed Naked Lunch despite the claims that its source material was un-filmable and in 1998, Terry Gilliam took on the unenviable task of turning Hunter S. Thompson's ramblings into Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Though Bruce Joel Rubin wasn't adapting any source material, his screenplay for Jacob's Ladder certainly presented a challenge to director Adriane Lyne, who wasn't exactly expanding people's minds with his previous work (Fatal Attraction, Flashdance, etc.).  Rubin's screenplay was a pastiche of psychological, emotional, and spiritual influences ranging from dreams, to short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  With the wrong director holding such a dense script together, there is a danger that the film could become a directionless mess of contrasting ideas and tones. 

Lyne, in my opinion, does a great job turning Jacob's Ladder into a subtle film about a man struggling with loss, his faith, and his sanity as he's haunted by visions of demons, his dead son and his murky time in Vietnam.  But the work of translating the text was only half the battle in making Jacob's Ladder so effective.  In order for it to be the film it turned out to be, Adriane Lyne cut quite a few scenes in the last third of the film that, if included, would've changed the entire tone of the film's ending and eliminated some of its openness to interpretation.

SPOILER ALERT: This analysis will deal extensively with spoilers for Jacob's Ladder, specifically the film's ending. Do not read on if you don't want to know the end.

 

FROM SCRIPT: How It Reads

Jacob's Ladder (1990), screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin.

I'm going to be working a little bit backwards in this entry of "From Script to Screen," seeing as the scenes I'll be analyzing obviously didn't make the final cut.  Therefore, the screenplay pages included will be those that did not make it into the film and the scene included will be the way the film currently wraps up.  Also, for the sake of brevity, I'll be paraphrasing a few of the scenes that were cut.

Late in the film, Jacob meets Michael, who explains to him the experimental drug connection between Jacob's visions and his time in Vietnam ("the Ladder").  In the original script, there are scenes where Michael administers a drug to counteract the visions, where Jacob makes a failed attempt to flee to Chicago, where Jacob finds Michael dead and an extended sequence where he returns to his home in Brooklyn and confronts Jezzie – or what he thought was Jezzie.

JACOB is startled to see JEZZIE enter the room. She does not seem his usual self. She appears larger, more imposing.

JEZZIE

Hello, Jake. I knew you'd come here in the end.

JACOB is nervous.

JACOB

What're you…? Where's Sarah? Where are the boys?

JEZZIE

Sit down, Jake.

JACOB

Where are they?

JEZZIE

Sit down.

JACOB

No! What's going on? Where's my family?

JEZZIE

It's over, Jake. It's all over.

JACOB

Where have they gone?

JEZZIE

Wake up. Stop playing with yourself. It's finished.

JEZZIE stares at JACOB with a frightening, powerful glare. The edge of her coat rustles and flutters as she moves toward him. It is an innocent sound at first, but after a moment it transforms into something else, an obsessive flapping noise, the sound of a wing.

JACOB's body feels the first waves of an inner tremor. His legs are shaking.

JACOB

What's going on?

JEZZIE

Your capacity for self-delusion is remarkable, Dr. Singer.

JEZZIE begins walking around the dark living room as she talks to him.

Something about her walk is very unnatural. JACOB eyes her fearfully.

In the darkness JEZZIE's movements become increasingly strange and elusive. We see her pass before a shadow and disappear within it, only to reappear, seconds later, in a doorway on the other side of the room.

JACOB spins around, confused. Suddenly JEZZIE is inches from his face, although it seems like there has been no time for her to get there. Her movements are totally impossible, defying all logic, all physical laws.

JEZZIE

What's wrong, Jake? (she mocks him) Forget to take your antidote?

JACOB

Who are you? What are you doing to me?

JEZZIE

You have quite a mind, Jake. I loved your friends. That chemist – the Ladder. What an imagination you have!

There's some spooky noises and more visions of the winged creature that appeared at the party scene earlier in the film and then this:

Deep inside the darkness JACOB begins to make out the presence of a form, something writhing and tortured lurking before us. It looks briefly like an animal until we realize it is the image of a human face. It is covered by a dark suffocating film, like a mask.

JACOB digs into it with all his might and pulls it off.

DEAD SILENCE as JACOB SEES HIS OWN FACE staring back at him from beneath the mask. It is JACOB SINGER as we first saw him on the battlefield in Vietnam.

Only now his image is pale and lifeless. It takes JACOB a moment to realize that he is dead. The recognition is one of terrible confusion and pain.

JACOB stares at himself for a long time as a huge cry wells up inside him. It bursts forth with devastating sadness. 

 

THE SCENE: How It Looks

 

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TO SCREEN: How It's Improved (Or Not)

Most of these scenes that were cut are, to one extent or another, available as additional scenes on the DVD, so they were filmed, but Lyne made the correct decision to cut them from the final product for two reasons.

For one thing, the revelation that Jezzie never existed, or that she existed as a construct in Jacob's mind, and that the Ladder never existed gives a very narrow interpretation of the film.  There were always the subtle hints that Jezzie may have been a malevolent force in Jacob's life, but this final scene seems too outwardly confrontational and straightforward for a film that dealt largely in ambiguities for its first two-thirds. 

It might seem unusual to decry a film for clearing things up, but this Jezzie revelation seems contradictory to the spiritual undertones that were laid down earlier in the film when Louis, Jacob's chiropractor, had this to say: "If you're frightened of dying, and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. If you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth."  Many of the visions Jacob has seen previously have been frightening, but never hostile, so by removing this scene, Lyne has ensured that the film doesn't contradict itself right at the very end when everything should be coming together.

Moreover, the way Jacob's Ladder ends on the page is significantly less emotionally satisfying than the way it ends on the screen.  The film is littered with hints that Jacob has been dead or is dying with the implication being that he has to accept this and learn to let go of his mortal life before he can move on to his eternal peace.  Because he still thinks he's alive, he cannot accept death and ergo, we have conflict.  But the conflict throughout the film has always been internal and such an external conflict, as outlined above, just doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the film's tone. 

As it stand in the film, the transition from revelation of Jacob's death to his acceptance of it seems much more organic and more in line with what would be expected from a character arc.  By cutting straight from the conversation about the experimental drugs to Jacob entering his apartment and meeting his son, Lyne has trusted the audience to, like Jacob, put all the pieces together – Jacob hears that his unit killed each other, which makes sense of the Vietnam flashbacks, which leads him to believe he's been killed, which allows him to accept his death and move on.  Having Jacob piece things together on his own and allow him to accept his death on his own terms is a fitting way to end a film that has been about a spiritual journey.