The Wrong Side of the Tracks:
Visual Imagery (and other things)
in the Second Five Minutes of Adrian Lyne's “Jacob’s Ladder”
The first five minutes of Jacob's Ladder rival the opening fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan in terms of being a horrific portrayal of war. That’s not all that amazing - what is amazing is that Jacob’s Ladder really isn’t a war film. The next five minutes are some of the most interesting in contemporary cinema. Literary allusions abound, from ancient myth to existentialism. It is an emotional piece of cinematography in that it flawlessly provides the viewer with a snapshot of the main character’s mental state through the rest of the film - really confused and really, really scared. But even better (especially from an analysis standpoint) is that this extended scene is a contained five minutes of film, a fully developed scene with a beginning, a middle and an end. It works on its own just as well as it fits the rest of the film.
The scene opens with Jacob waking up in a subway car. From the first moment the scene smacks of Amiri Baraka’s The Dutchman, the essential theme being two people (possibly Adam and Eve) in Hell, with Hell represented by a subway train that never reaches a station.
The last we saw (and Jacob experienced) was Jacob getting bayonetted in Vietnam. He is disoriented, and so are we. Moviegoers are used to a perpendicular frame of reference, so to underscore this disorientation the camera is slightly tilted. It’s a subtle technique - the audience become slightly unsettled but can’t put their finger on why.
The book Jacob holds is The Stranger, by Camus, the concept of the novel being man’s tendency to impose a rational order on the world in the face of evidence that the world is absurd. Applied to the film, we can say that it is death that is inexplicable and that we therefore create an intellectual and emotional framework to make sense of it instead of just letting it exist as a fact of life. That structure is the ‘world’ that Jacob is currently experiencing - a rationalization of his own mortality.
We get a shot of two subway posters. The first reads “New York may be a crazy town, but you’ll never die of boredom. Enjoy!” which is essentially the movie poking fun at itself, and the second reads “HELL” and says that being on drugs is living in it. This, like the Camus reference (which recurs later - the book turns up in a desk drawer), is the whole plot of the movie in one quick shot.
He moves to the next car and tries to find out if the train has passed his stop yet. An odd woman stares at him as he talks at her, and her oddness is amplified by the lighting going in and out. Every time the lights come back on she’s still staring and doesn’t so much as blink at him. Adrian Lyne uses extremes of light and dark throughout the film, usually implemented with strobe lights, to further disrupt the audience’s linear perception of time and to reenforce the surrealist feel of the work.
On the way out of the subway car he passes a homeless man lying on a seat, and
we get a glimpse of a tail. This is this first sign that something’s not at all right in Jacob’s world, but the image is so briefly seen that he assumes he’s imagining it. These demonic visions get worse and worse until they eventually step in and take over as realistic.
Jacob’s attempt to get out of the subway station is filmed so that the audience knows that he’s in a prison. Practically every time he’s shown until he jumps down to the tracks he is behind bars or pillars or fences, and usually from below. That’s an interesting use of an angle shot - When a person is filmed from a low-angle it makes them appear bigger than life (not surprisingly it's been nicknamed the superman shot). But in this case, he’s not heroic - he’s trapped in an abandoned subway station and there’s little to no chance of him punching his way through a wall to escape.
As noted, the other use of a low-angle shot is to make what a person represents seem larger than life. Jacob’s problems are completely internal so the low-angle shot makes his problems seem larger-than-life and, by contrast, make him seem helpless even though his delusional state is visually represented by him, in essence, towering over himself.
The station functions as a metaphor for Jacob’s mind. It’s a prison that he can’t escape. At the end of the scene, after the train comes, we cut to Jacob entering his apartment. We don’t actually see him leave the station. Most scenes in this film don’t have logical endings, implying that all the horrors he is experiencing are happening simultaneously and that we are jumping tracks to aid the narrative, and he is jumping the same tracks to avoid intense physical or emotional pain. This isn’t a murder mystery - the point isn’t to discover which reality is true, it’s to come to the realization that they’re all true.
The only way out of the station is to cross the tracks, a feat which Jacob attempts. As he crosses them (carefully - a wonderful detail is Jacob testing each rail with his foot in case it’s electrified) a train comes. As he crosses he puts his foot squarely into a canal of water that runs the length of the track. The reference is to ancient Greek mythology - crossing the river Styx to enter the underworld.
We don’t see the train itself initially so much as we feel it - it is represented by swaying lamps and dancing lightbulbs. When Jacob sees the train there is a moment of panic - he is standing in the middle of a switch in the tracks and doesn’t know where the train is going to go; there is no ‘safe’ side. Again, demons appear on the train - people with no faces, pressed up against the glass. The audience never sees one of these visions for more than a few seconds - by keeping them briefly shown and ambiguously placed and lit, the audience is kept in a state of confusion as to what is ‘real’ and what is in Jacob’s head. The joke’s on them, of course, as they realize that both sets are true. The demons are as real as Jacob makes them because they, and the world, reside in his head.
These five minutes are so wonderful because they are amazingly detailed. It’s the little things that make it great, and those details conspire to create a completely engrossing world. That’s quite a feat considering that Jacob’s world is almost completely unbelievable. Lyne succeeds in crafting a universe in a little under two hours - and succeeds in making a disbelieving audience believe the inherently unbelievable.