Jacob’s Ladder (2019)
★ / ★★★★
Screenwriters Jeff Buhler and Sarah Thorp prove to have no understanding of why Adrian Lyne’s “Jacob’s Ladder” works as psychological thriller because this remake gets just about every element wrong. It is neither psychological nor thrilling; it is composed merely of would-be creepy or shocking images that are ineffective, a few downright laughable, because there is minimal context behind them. While an attempt is made to avoid telling an identical story as its inspiration, it fails to drill deeply into the connection among post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction, and war veterans. Instead, these fascinating and important subjects are summarized into post-it notes—notes from bad and reductive movies, not even from textbooks.
It fails to establish a dream-like tone or feeling—a crucial element so that later on we could not help but to buy into the story’s nightmarish and hallucinatory sequences. Instead, observe closely on how the one-dimensional screenplay often builds up to a standard chase scene where Jacob (Michael Ealy), a trauma surgeon, ends up cornering a person of interest who disappears into thin air the very last second. How convenient. This formula is tired, boring, and highly repetitive. It commands no tension and each attempt is less effective than the last.
In the middle of this misfire of a remake, I began to feel sorry for Ealy who deserves better than this train wreck. Watch him closely during the more dramatic sequences, particularly when Jacob’s seemingly perfect life begins to unravel. You will see a performer begging to be challenged. Director David M. Rosenthal neglects to recognize his lead’s strength. Ealy is capable of looking vulnerable and tough, sometimes at the same time, at a drop of a hat. He is so expressive that at times allowing the camera to focus on his face is enough for us to get a readout of what his character may be thinking or feeling. Instead, Jacob is forced to go into all sorts of histrionics—like writhing on the floor, wailing, screaming, and such—in order to create a semblance of torment and urgency.
But the thing is, the material is already about a man’s anguish since he is slowly realizing that maybe he can no longer tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Urgency comes—or should come—in the form of viewers wishing to know more about the curious story and its shady characters. But because the screenplay is stuck in the limbo of providing easy answers, all mystique is lost. The movie clocks in at only ninety-three minutes, but it feels much longer. One of the reasons is because we already know all of its tricks after the first act. And so we grow impatient for the movie to surprise us at least once. It never surprised me.
“Jacob’s Ladder” is a remake without flavor, purpose, or spine. Perhaps the initial draft wished to say something of value about how our American society tends to treat our troops once they’ve come home from war—that maybe we celebrate them more when they are stationed in foreign lands, much less when they are home and in need of the best healthcare. But somewhere along the way substance is diluted in order to make room for jump scares.