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The screenplay for Jacob's Ladder has been kicking around Hollywood for the better part of a decade. One viewing tells you why. A movie this dark, this terrifying, this complex isn't for couch potatoes. It's better attuned for Bergman lovers or those into psychedelia.

Jacob's Ladder is one rough ride. Alternately exhilarating and perplexing, it slips through conflicting planes of reality and fantasy, shifting forward and backward in time from the Vietnam War to the mid-'70s in Brooklyn.

Visual stylist Adrian Lyne, directing his most fully realized picture to date, never differentiates between the genuine and the imaginary. His goal is to puzzle and to enlighten with this hallucinatory allegory drawn from the book of Genesis.

Nothing in Lyne's slickly manipulative Flashdance, 9{ Weeks or Fatal Attraction hints at a work of such dangerous daring. Jacob's Ladder doesn't play by conventional rules; it doesn't cater to conventional audiences.

The story begins in the Mekong Delta where several soldiers in Jacob Singer's (Tim Robbins) unit are overcome by seizures moments before a brutal skirmish. Singer creeps through the jungle, then is ambushed and skewered by an attacker's bayonet.

He writhes in pain, awakening on a Brooklyn-bound subway. He's a postal clerk, heading home after the night shift. He shuffles to another car to ask a passenger if he has passed the Bergen Street station. Waiting for his stop he sees _ or thinks he sees _ a fleshy tail peeking from beneath a bum's raincoat.

The hallucinations grow increasingly disturbing. Jake sees a grey, balloon-headed demon peeking from a passing subway train; he's nearly run down by a pack of demons driving a car.

He tells his co-worker/girlfriend, Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena), and his chiropractor, Louis (Danny Aiello), about his Vietnam flashbacks and the visions that haunt him. He tries to visit his shrink at the V.A. center, but the nurse swears the doctor doesn't exist _ for that matter, neither does Jake.

Things get weirder. Jake is overcome by paranoia at a party and envisions a scaly-tailed beast violating Jezzie. He becomes violently ill, passes out and awakes in bed with Sarah (Patricia Kalember), his ex-wife.

Except he's still married.

I had the strangest dream, Jake tells Sarah. I imagined we were divorced and I was living with Jezzie. Sarah laughs at such a preposterous notion.

In Jacob's Ladder, reality is whatever Jake experiences at the moment. One instant he's in Vietnam, the next he's in a Brooklyn pool hall with a buddy from the platoon. Jake's friend is frightened. He says spirits are chasing him.

Jacob's Ladder flirts briefly with a conspiracy theory, that the Army may be responsible for Jake's hallucinations by slipping hostility-inducing drugs into his rations. Then other suppositions arise, like Jake might be suffering from the grandaddy of delayed stress syndromes or he might even be dead.

Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin _ who subsequently wrote the more commercial Ghost _ methodically climbs Jacob's ladder while altering Jake's perception of the world around him.

Often the visions in this arresting, repugnant, dreamlike-drama are unsettling: hospital stretchers being wheeled over floors strewn with entrails; nipple clamps being screwed onto Jake's chest; memories of Jake's youngest son being hit by a car. And that's the movie's ultimate undoing.

There is little comfort except through death in Jacob's Ladder. Lyne's New York is an earthly hell, a modern version of Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.

His characters are decidedly ordinary. Philosophy professor-turned-postal clerk Robbins balances precipitously on the edge of sanity. Pena, sans accent, reacts with a mixture of concern and self-centered dread. Danny Aiello, as a chiropractor specializing in spiritual pain, emerges as an oddly reassuring vision of death.

In Lyne and Rubin's Jacob's Ladder, the demons are angels, waiting for mortals to make peace and free their souls. It's a painful, harrowing process, better respected than enjoyed.

MOVIE REVIEWJacob's Ladder

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Director: Adrian Lyne

Cast: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello

Screenplay: Bruce Joel Rubin

Rating: R; nudity, profanity, violence

Running time: 110 minutes

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