Aiming to modernize the plot of Adrian Lyne’s 1990 Tim Robbins-starring thriller, David M. Rosenthal’s Jacob’s Ladder weaves PTSD, psychoactive drugs, family failures and crime into a paranoiac mudslide from which its title character (Michael Ealy, of Rosenthal’s The Perfect Guy) may never escape. But the film succumbs to a problem nearly every story revolving around hallucination and unreliable witnesses must overcome: If we know from the first scene that all threats we see may be imagined, why should we care? In the original, a director with rock-solid commercial instincts barely kept viewers from feeling cheated; Rosenthal fares considerably less well.
Ealy’s Jacob Singer was a military trauma surgeon in Afghanistan and, a year or so after coming home to his wife, Samantha (Nicole Behairie), and new baby, works at a V.A. hospital. He’s haunted by the memory of being in the operating room when his brother Isaac (Jesse Williams), a soldier, died. But plenty of people in this hospital are haunted, and most — who look strung-out or have frightening disfigurements — haven’t resettled into the domestic comforts that Jacob enjoys.
A prelude unrelated to these characters has set the stage: A veteran walking down a street steps on some trash and flashes back to an IED and the ensuing firefight. He tumbles into an alley and swigs desperately from a tiny vial for relief, but is attacked by a stranger who was waiting there. As the man thrashes to escape strangulation, several cutaways reveal that he’s alone in the alley.
Unfortunately, after that first sequence, the pic loses interest in proving that someone behind the scenes knows what’s real and what isn’t. After an encounter with a vet who claims Isaac is still alive, Jacob starts meeting increasingly unlikely people, from a malformed homeless man to disappearing burglars to a hospital patient who walks on the ceiling. The film will sometimes acknowledge that he’s hallucinating (showing us something that disappears when we cut to a new angle), but it also has bystanders witness things that surely can’t be real. Meanwhile, the ordinary people in Jacob’s life (his shrink; a pharmacist buddy) behave strangely enough that we’re led to imagine a vast conspiracy that might have him in its sights. (Sometimes, it’s tempting to suspect Rosenthal has given different scripts to members of the cast, leading them to behave as if they’re in contradictory worlds.)
Ealy’s straightforward, earnest performance is bland enough that it’s hard to identify fully with Jacob’s bewilderment in what seems, at points, like a ’70s-style conspiracy plot. We hear about an experimental drug that somehow targets traumatic memories; those who become addicted to it seem to be pursued by shadowy government men. We learn that Isaac is alive, living in a subterranean camp for damaged vets; Jacob’s therapist is suspiciously unfazed by this news, before rushing off to “a meeting” he’s late for.
As jumbled as all this is, the movie never achieves the kind of sweaty intensity of the original. Rosenthal’s crew sometimes alludes to Lyne’s visual inventions (we see several moments of the kind of twitchy blur-motion that has been much used in horror films since), but the pic’s FX moments don’t cohere around any persuasive storytelling vision. Writers Jeff Buhler and Sarah Thorpe do make sense of all these mixed messages in the end, but it’s not the kind of payoff that makes what led to it feel worthwhile.
Production companies: LD Entertainment, Gaeta/Rosenzweig Films
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Michael Ealy, Nicole Beharie, Jesse Williams, Guy Burnet
Director: David M. Rosenthal
Screenwriters: Jeff Buhler, Sarah Thorpe
Producers: Michael J. Gaeta, Mickey Liddell, Jennifer Monroe, Alison R. Rosenzweig
Executive producers: Scott Holroyd, James Lopez, Alice Neuhauser
Director of photography: Pedro Luque
Production designer: David Brisbin
Costume designer: David Tabbert
Editor: Richard Mettler
Composer: Atli Orvarsson
Casting director: Deanna Brigidi
Rated R, 89 minutes