First and foremost, this movie is totally bonkers. Absolutely insane. It uses some unique techniques to create some crazy in-camera (non-post) special effects, and you really see how incredibly, mind-bogglingly tall Tim Robbins is.
Jacob's Ladder was directed by Adrian Lyne (director of Fatal Attraction) and stars Tim Robbins, Danny Aiello, Ving Rhames, Jason Alexander, just to name a few. It was released in 1990, and again, is absolutely whacked-out.
Tim Robbins stars as Jacob Singer, a Vietnam war veteran (with a Ph.D) who works in a post office. The film opens in Vietnam, as Jake and his army buddies joke around until they see movement in the trees. Then all hell breaks loose, and there are explosions, gunshots, and Ving Rhames starts having some kind of seizure. Jake is bayonetted by an unseen assailant, and then he wakes up. He's been home from the war for awhile; I don't think it ever really specifically says how long, but it's set in 1975, so he can't have been home too long. As the film progresses, he begins having strange hallucinations and visions of demons, as well as war flashbacks, seeming to be some sort of post-traumatic stress.
There is a ton of religious imagery and references in the film (his girlfriend's name is Jezebel, and his sons have biblical names). He consistently refers to Louie, his chiropractor (played by Danny Aiello) as an angel, an "overgrown cherub." He sees a faceless man (or a man with a bag on his head) everywhere, his face blurred and shaking (accomplished in-film by filming an actor shaking their head back and forth at a slow rate, then played back normal speed, resulting in a totally crazy blurring effect). Nobody seems to believe him, even when he falls ill with a 106 fever, and needs to be baptized in a tub of ice water to save his life.
It seems like a lot of movies feature dank, horrible, depressing hallways, especially in hospitals. After he's abducted by apparently military men/thugs, he beats them up and bails out of the car, hurting his bad back and getting robbed by a streetcorner Santa. When he goes to the hospital, they think he's a little crazy, since he says Santa Clause stole his wallet. He begins hallucinating again (or so we think), as they take him deeper and deeper into the hospital. He sees gibbering mental patients, deformed patients, his son's damaged bicycle (his son Gabe, played by Macauley Kulkin) was killed in an accident on his bike while Jake was in Vietnam), as well as a hallway of random organs and blood. The doctors there tell him that he's already dead, and he thinks that he's in hell. He eventually wakes up; his ex-wife and his sons stop by to visit, but he has more visions. Louie shows up later, raving about the conditions in the hospital, and carts him away, always the guardian angel.
During the whole movie, in addition to his other hallucinations and visions of demons, hell, etc., he also has random flashes and dreams of Vietnam, showing after he was bayonetted, his fellow soldiers finding him, helicopters, etc. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the film. Potential spoiler alert, although I think that 19 years after release, it won't be that big of a deal anymore. However, I don't want to ruin it for anyone that hasn't seen it yet (and I do recommend checking it out), there's some fair warning. By the end of the film, we discover that Jake never made it out of Vietnam. He dies shortly after being stabbed, and his entire post-war life is one long, detailed hallucination, an example of extended tachypsychia, a perception of distended time, where in the span of a few minutes before his death, he lives out a few years of his life, though towards the end, he begins hallucinating and catching visions of reality.
The point is, all the random flashes throughout the film about Vietnam are the only things happening in the real time of the film. Because they're so short, and the other segments are so long, the audience assumes that the Vietnam stuff is a flashback, and the rest is current. In reality, Vietnam is the only current event taking place, and the rest of the movie represent extended "flash-forwards," where he has hallucinatory visions on his deathbed. Not only is this a good plot twist and comes out of nowhere, it's a fantastic example of how the audience can be manipulated by expectation. We assume that the post-war stuff is "real," and actually happening, because we're given no conceivable reason to assume otherwise. In looking at it the other way, we see only about ten minutes of actual "reality," where even the seemingly normal post-war scenes are in fact hallucinations, featuring their own otherworldly twisted hallucinations as his brain begins to die, along with his body (this may explain his chronic back pain; additionally, in his fantasy world, he has a scar on his abdomen that is apparently the healed bayonet wound that he "survives").
The movie also brings up important questions on the nature of perception and reality as we experience it. Can we truly trust anything that we experience with any of our senses? Can we be sure that what we perceive as real actually is? Jake meets a man towards the end that claims to have been a military chemist, and Jake's platoon was being tested with an experimental drug designed to make soldiers more aggressive. It worked too well, causing the soldiers to attack indiscriminately and extremely violently (Jake is stabbed and killed by one of his own men, although it's possible that this is all fake as well, considering he's told this by one of his hallucinations). "The Ladder" is a drug designed to take soldiers straight down into base anger. He returns "home," to his ex-wife's place, and eventually sees his deceased son on the stairs. He climbs them with Gabe, and the scene is whited out. We then see that he's still in 'Nam, dying on a surgical table in a tent.
Louie told Jake that people that burn in hell are those that cannot let go; the fire burns all that away, and it frees the soul. If you have made your peace, the fire is cleansing, and the devils are really angels, freeing the soul. His entire life after the war is designed to help him let go of what he has been clinging to: his wife and children, and the guilt over his son's death, and of not being there when it happened (to prevent it, or even to grieve properly). It's all eventually burned away (get it, with the fever, and whatnot? It's metaphor!). He also climbs a "ladder" of sorts (stairs are like a ladder, sort of, it's a metaphor too, see?).
This movie really messes with the mind. It's difficult to accept anything at face value, and I can see how the ending could be less of a twist and more of a "What the...?" to some audiences. The fact that none of it actually "happened" or was "real" isn't really important. The idea of reality being up to our minds is pretty staggering. Basically, my face was like this by the time the movie was over:
This film is definitely recommended. It's worth four imagined lifetimes out of five, or four insanely tall Tim Robbinses out of five. Definitely check it out, just be sure to prepare your mind for a complete freak-job.