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.
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five friends decided to drive to an isolated cabin in the middle of a forest for a needed weekend getaway. While playing a round of Truth or Dare, the cellar popped open. Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the athlete, said the wind must’ve done it. Marty (Fran Kranz), the fool, scoffed at the improbability of such a statement. Jules (Anna Hutchison), the whore, was just dared to make out with a wolf hung on the wall, tongue and all, so strange and comedic that it was almost erotic. As a dare, Jules chose Dana (Kristen Connolly), the virgin, to go down the cellar and investigate. Her eyes scanned over trinkets behind a shroud of black. She screamed. Holden (Jesse Williams), the scholar, came rushing to her assistance. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was drenched in irony and satire but it also worked as an astute criticism of the stagnancy of the kinds of horror movies released since the slasher-fest eighties. In this instance, the five friends were appropriately not given background information because we’ve familiarized ourselves, to the point of being inured, to their respective archetypes. Instead, much of the screenplay was dedicated to challenging our expectations of them as well as their rather unique circumstance. For example, with Curt’s impressive physique and propensity for holding onto a football like it was a requisite organ, we didn’t expect him to know much about books let alone cite a respectable author. There was a very funny joke about his and others’ stereotype, so we were constantly aware that the material was one step ahead of us. I watched the movie with a smile on my face because I found it so refreshing. Instead of me sitting there trying to psychically push the material to reach its potential, it was ambitious enough to set the bar for itself. It challenged its audience by thinking outside the box in terms of the inherent limitations of the genre. We’ve all wondered why characters in scary movies, after escaping an assault mere ten seconds prior, tend to drop their knife, gun, or whatever weapon that just saved their lives. The film acknowledged this phenomenon without flogging a dead horse. The first half took inspiration from Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II,” although more tame with regards to the comedy and horror. The second half, on the other hand, was a surprisingly electric conflation of twisted originality that seemed to stem from a series finale of a television show, cartoonish gory violence, and exorcism of authority. What connected the two disparate halves was our curiosity about what was really going on. Notice the characters did not explain anything to us in detail. The filmmakers were smart enough to assume that we were capable of observing, thinking on our own, and putting everything together like a puzzle. By simply showing us what was happening without having to explain each step and why certain events had to transpire a certain way, as a dry lab report would, it was already one step ahead of its peers. I wish, however, that the last few scenes didn’t feel so rushed. So much tension was built up until the final confrontation but instead of milking our nerves, I felt like it was in a hurry to let go of the weight it collected over the course of its short running time. Directed by Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was a fun frolic in the dark forest of clichés because a handful of them were subverted with fresh ideas. I wouldn’t want to come across that towering zombie that used a bear trap as a weapon, though. He could give Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers a run for their money.