Jacob's Ladder (1990) - Plot Summary Poster

(I) (1990)


Showing all 4 items
Jump to:


  • New York postal worker Jacob Singer is trying to keep his frayed life from unraveling. His days are increasingly being invaded by flashbacks to his first marriage, his now-dead son, and his tour of duty in Vietnam. Although his new wife tries to help Jacob keep his grip on sanity, the line between reality and delusion is steadily growing more and more uncertain.

  • On 06 Oct 1971, in Vietnam, the American soldier Jacob Singer is wounded by a bayonet during an attack to his platoon. He wakes up in a New York subway while going home late at night after working overtime in the post office. He is divorced from Sarah, lives with his colleague and lover Jezebel in a small Brooklyn apartment and misses his young son Gabe, who died in an accident for which Jacob feels responsible. During the next days, Jacob is chased by demons and finds the army conspiracy against him, while having strange visions during different moments of his life.

  • Mourning his dead child, a haunted Vietnam War veteran attempts to uncover his past while suffering from a severe case of dissociation. To do so, he must decipher reality and life from his own dreams, delusions, and perceptions of death.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Helicopters at Nam. We are at the Mekong Delta, 1971. Suddenly, all the soldiers have splitting headaches and go wild. They are attacked. Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) doesn't even move; he just stares at the mess and cruelty of war. He survives but has to run away on his own. He is wounded.

    He wakes up alone at a dirty underground wagon. He fell asleep while reading a book. He goes to another compartment where there is an old woman (Antonia Rey) and inquires if they have passed Bergen Street, but she doesn't understand him. There's a tramp sleeping there. He thinks he sees something like a tail. He leaves the train at his station but the doors are locked and chained. The exit is at the other side of the railway, he is alone in the station. He splashes into a pool of water; lights are flickering, another train is approaching menacingly - and he thinks he sees faceless people staring at him from the windows, one of them waving him goodbye.

    It's a sad, downtrodden New York side he lives in. Finally, he gets home to Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), who was worried about him being so late. He has a shower and Jezzie showers with him.

    In Nam, he is crawling in the jungle. He notices a spiderweb. He wakes up in the morning, after having made love to Jezzie. They stare at some old photographs: one of them is Sarah's (Patricia Kalember). There is also a picture of Jacob's dead son, Gabe (Macaulay Culkin) which makes him cry. Jezzie offers some consolation, but she wants to destroy the photographs because they make Jacob cry. Later on, she throws the photographs into an incinerator, except for the one Jacob keeps in his wallet of his late son.

    Jacob driving while singing. He's a postman now. He flirts at work and goes for a massage to Louis (Danny Aiello), who feels that Jacob is terribly tense today. He comes back to the moment he was found in Nam. Jacob feels so relaxed, suddenly, and Louis looks like an angel to him.

    Walking down the street in his uniform, a group of young women (Kisha Skinner & Dion Simmons) sing to him Hey, Mr Postman. A car tries to run him over, with the same blurry faces as on the train. He goes to Doctor Carlson's. The reception nurse (Suzanne Shepherd) says that there is no such doctor and never was. She suggests he sees a psychiatric doctor. Jacob bangs on the table, breaking a flower vase. When the nurse picks it up, he notices she's got a weird dead thing on her head. Jacob runs away and is followed by a security guard. He interrupts a group meeting. He says he's waiting for Dr Carlson. The new doctor (Doug Barron) says that Dr Carlson died in a car accident a month ago, it just "blew up".

    Jezzie thinks he's exaggerating. She touches his back.

    He is in a house party dancing to Lady Marmalade . A woman wants to read his future. She says that according to his palms, he's already dead. He dances with Jezzie, one of the partygoers, but feels the need to go. He notices a young man staring at him and several birds flying around. He stumbles and his glasses fall after seeing the man become a dizzy faceless man. He sees one of the partygoers strip down and a weird lizard tail hurting and killing her. The party stops because he panics and faints.

    He remembers about Nam. Jezzie tells him off because she felt mortified at the party. Jacob has a temperature, so Jezzie calls a doctor. She prepares a bath with ice so that the fever goes down. She calls for the help of her neighbours to ask for more ice. Mrs Carmichael (Gloria Irizarry) brought a bag full of ice. Some of them put them in the freezing water and he screams in pain.

    Back in bed, he thinks that he's with Sarah, and that his son enters his bedroom to complain of the cold. They talk father-to-son. It looks like he's been hallucinating. He wakes up dazed and confused, with Jezzie and a dog looking at him. He closes his reddened eyes, and remembers a helicopter picking him up.

    Jacob sees pictures in a book of torture and hell. Jezzie screams at him "Anybody home?", and he interprets it as her being a demon, so he pushes her away. She leaves, wishing he was dead. At that moment the phone rings; it's Paul Flanagan (Pruitt Taylor Vince).

    They meet at a bar. Paul thinks that he's being followed, and is scared to death. They start wondering what they did to them that night in Nam which they can't remember. Somebody is looking at them. They are going out of the bar together. Jacob stops to pick up a penny saying "my lucky day". Paul starts his car and smiles: it blows up, killing him instantly. The man who was staring at them tries to help Jacob, but then he leaves before Jacob has time to assimilate everything. For a second, Jacob remembers how the pilot got shot and blood spilled everywhere.

    It's Paul's funeral: it's raining, and everybody is carrying an umbrella. Frank (Eriq La Salle) trembles. George (Ving Rhames) spills his bottle. Jacob says to his friends that everything is too suspicious. Jacob and his 5 friends contact a lawyer, Geary (Jason Alexander) to sue the military department. He says it'll be expensive as hell while munching some crappy food. Somebody watches them leaving the office.

    Later, Jezzie tells Jacob that the lawyer is not taking his case as his friends have all backed down. Frank says that he's backed down because of having been threatened. Jacob insists that Geary take his case. He says that he's just checked his background and he and his friends were left out of the army draws on psychological grounds.

    Some guys kidnap Jacob in a car. They are official-looking men. A lady with a buggy sees that. Jacob hits the man and jumps out of the car, where a man dressed as Santa Claus (Jan Saint) stares at them. He's begging for money and he steals Jacob's wallet.

    Jacob is admitted to hospital. A young police officer (Raymond Anthony Thomas) has found him. A nurse (Bellina Logan) tells him that they will do for him everything they can. The resident doctor (Scott Cohen) looks as though he's having fun. Jacob starts seeing a broken bike, and weird demented people all over him. He passes through some butcher's place with human parts all over the place, and watches a faceless man (Alva Williams) trembling again.

    An evil doctor (Davidson Thomson) is getting ready to operate on him and tells him that he's dead. Jezzie is a nurse there. He insists he's alive and sane. An eyeless doctor (Ed Jupp Jr.) punctures his forehead with a needle and reaches his brain.

    Sarah and two children visit him in hospital. Jacob insists he's alive. A voice says "Dream on", and Jacob panics again. His doctor tries to take him out of hospital. He's heavily bandaged. The nurses and paramedics cannot stop them. Louis gives him a massage: Jacob says that he was in hell. Louis's treatment is rough and painful, but he says that now, Jacob is well.

    Jacob checks on his honourable discharge documents. He also sees a drawing made by Gabe. He was playing with his bike, and started to pick up his baseball cards from the road. A car ran over him. He thinks he sees him at home but sees a blurry man again. He caresses his temples.

    Jezzie enters with some groceries. She asks where he's been, as he's been away for two days. She looks very concerned. She called every hospital in the city, but he was nowhere. The phone rings, and Jacob tells her not to pick it up. She picks up andsays she hasn't seen him all night. Jacob picks the phone up when she asks "what experiment?". Jezzie looks terrified and asks him not to go. He hugs her, says "sorry and leaves. The voice tells him to make sure he's not being followed.

    Michael Newman (Matt Craven) has been following him for some time, as he was one of the survivors. He claims to have been a chemist who used to work for the Army's chemical warfare division in Saigon. They had invented a new drug called "The Ladder". It was designed to increase aggression, bringing soldiers' most primal urges to light in such a way that the conscious mind could not repress them. The ladder was first tested on monkeys and then on a group of captured enemy combatants, with gruesome results. It was deemed that the drug had created the effect wanted by the army officers, so the next step was to give small doses of the drug to the soldiers in Jacob's batallion in secret. Here it was when all hell turned loose, as each private attacked his fellow soldiers. The result was a carnage, so one of his fellow soldiers was responsible for wounding Jacob, not the enemy.

    Jacob leaves and takes a taxi. Jacob gives the taxi driver (Sam Coppola) all his money and tells him to take him home. The driver asks where his home is. Jacob finally remembers the moment when he was wounded, and it was somebody from his platoon.

    The Doorman (Thomas A. Carlin) greets Jacob as "Doctor Singer", saying that it's a long time since they have seen each other. They shake hands.

    He is alone at home; he sits in the dark and reminiscences about playing with Gabe. He sees Gabe. Jacob and his son hug each other. Gabe takes him by the hand upstairs, into the shining light.

    Newman is in Nam: he says that Jacob is gone. He and another doctor (Jaime Perry) leave his body behind carelessly.

    Fade to black.

    Some captions say that "It was reported that the hallucinogenic drug BZ was used in experiments on soldiers during the Vietnam war. The Pentagon denied the story."

    End credits.

    Photographs of Jacob and Gabe walking together, from behind.

See also

Taglines | Synopsis | Plot Keywords | Parents Guide

Contribute to This Page