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This Adrian Lyne film is based on a short story called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by A. Bierce. Even thought Bierce’s story is not the same as the one in the film, the subject matter is similar, dealing with the issue of fantasy versus reality. Bierce’s story refers a man who was hanged from a bridge during the American civil war in the 1800’s. In the story, the rope broke loose and the man returned to his wife by escaping through the river. However, in reality the rope never broke but the man fantasized of his survival while he was hanging.

This film is about life versus death. The leading character, Vietnam War Veteran, Jacob Singer (brilliantly played by Tim Robbins), had lost the capacity of distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Upon his return to New York, following the war, Jacob found himself on the verge of a psychological breakdown, struggling to heal from the emotional wounds of war. Coupled with feelings of guilt, rooted in family tragedies, Jacob suffers from haunting hallucinations regarding his last military operation in Vietnam. Similar to other members of his platoon, Jacob could not recall the precise events of the battle, but instead demonic visions haunted him, confusing him, and the audience, as to what was real or not. His dreams of his family life with his former wife are colorful and clear, putting into question the reality of his present relationship.

As the film progresses, Jacob’s reality mixes further with fantasy as places and characters become incoherent. His chiropractor appears in his hospital to help him with his bad back, while a dressed up Santa Claus picks Jacobs wallet as he lies in the gutter. In addition, Jacob finds himself in a train station with no exits, almost gets run over by a car, and his doctor and a friend are killed in a car explosion. These bizarre events lead him to believe that he and his Vietnam friends were victims of a government conspiracy, a cover up of an Army experiment. Flashbacks are used to confirm the reality of the story on the battlefield, showing Jacob’s platoon growing dizzy and on a later stage, unable to recall what happened until they were taken to the hospital.

Whether the events actually do take place or not, they appear to be vivid in Jacob’s mind, making the distinction between reality and fantasy irrelevant. The emotional distress and psychological torture Jacob goes through is of the same capacity whether all is real or imaginary. The emotional journey the audience is taken through, and the hatred developed for yet again another government atrocity, are so strong that would not differ if Jacob was actually dead or alive.

In this film the illusion is usually regarded as the extraordinary, false and sometimes the erroneous that integrates with reality as a means of escape and comfort. However, unreal events are in actuality existent and concrete. In this film Lyne vividly toyed with the idea of reality versus fantasy, questioning the existence of both, interchanging and intergrading their role. Here the main character fantasize of the extraordinary while struggling to turn the fantastic into reality, creating, as a result, a puzzling mesh of the two that leads to confusion and misplacement.

Jacob's Ladder (1990)
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