All Rung Out -- `Jacob's Ladder' Reaches New Cinematic Heights

XXXX ``Jacob's Ladder,'' with Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello, Matt Craven, Patricia Kalember. Directed by Adrian Lyne, from a script by Bruce Joel Rubin. Aurora Village, Crossroads, Factoria, Harvard Exit, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Kent, Kirkland Parkplace, Oak Tree, Parkway Plaza, Seatac Mall Cinemas. ``R'' - Restricted, due to language, nudity, violence.

Movies are full of surprises.

Back in January, who would have predicted that such hot filmmakers as David Lynch, Spike Lee and Barry Levinson would disappoint in 1990, or that Adrian Lyne - the director of such mechanical atrocities as ``Flashdance'' and ``9 1/2 Weeks'' - would create one of the year's most courageous and moving films?

At a time when Hollywood movies are recycling themselves almost cannibalistically, when there appear to be no new plots or genres or styles to explore, who could have foreseen that Bruce Joel Rubin - the author of ``Ghost,'' an innocuous rehash of dozens of Hollywood ghost fantasies - would write the unpredictable script that so inspired Lyne?

``Jacob's Ladder'' is their collaboration, and it's a true American original. For hours and days after you've seen it, you'll still be putting it together in your head. While all of it is gripping, it doesn't come together until the final scene, which is jolting, transcendent, unexpected yet inevitable. You find yourself grasping for ways to define it.

The hero is a gentle but disturbed Vietnam veteran named Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), who works as a New York postman, reads Albert Camus' ``The Stranger'' on the subway, lives with a postal clerk (Elizabeth Pena) and finds himself haunted by nightmares about his last skirmish in Vietnam. He was severely wounded, but he can't remember the precise circumstances of the battle and, as it turns out, neither can the other members of his platoon.

All of them are haunted by demonic visions, and some are convinced they're being hunted down. At times their fears are clearly justified; at other times they appear to be only hallucinations or delayed shellshock reactions. The story is told from Jacob's point of view, but his grip on reality is never certain. When he dreams about family life with his former wife (Patricia Kalember), the fantasy is so vivid that it obliterates his current relationship and calls everything that's been presented as ``real'' into question.

Eventually everything begins to seem out of whack. Jacob's chiropractor (Danny Aiello) shows up at his hospital to rescue him from the quack doctors who are destroying his back. A street-corner Santa Claus lifts Jacob's wallet as he lies helpless in a gutter. A subway station has no exit.

``Jacob's Ladder'' may at times remind you of other movies, but that's part of its teasing design. For the first hour or so, there are plenty of hints that it's going to turn into a paranoid political thriller (``The Manchurian Candidate'' comes to mind) or an exceptionally radical anti-Vietnam War movie. But the structure comes closer to the Rosebud puzzle of ``Citizen Kane,'' as Carlos Castaneda might have envisioned it.

It's an acid movie - a head trip, in the vernacular of another era - but it isn't ultimately about drugs, and it's certainly not an advertisement for them. In one sense, it's the provocative investigation into the nature of memory that ``Total Recall'' promised to be before it turned into a Schwarzenegger gut-buster.

Lyne deftly handles the story's shifting realities, legitimately turning Jacob's troubled journey into a roller-coaster of the mind. He leaves you disoriented, dazed yet profoundly satisfied. It's the first Lyne movie since ``Foxes'' (1980) that deals in recognizable people rather than the stock characters that filled even his most famous film, ``Fatal Attraction'' (1987).

Although all the actors are good, Tim Robbins' performance is the key element. Best-known as the young pacifist in ``Five Corners'' and the rookie pitcher in ``Bull Durham,'' he brings such unforced sweetness to the role of Jacob that he makes this difficult part look easy. Even when the character seems completely crazy, Robbins has our sympathy.

If there is an auteur here, however, it's Rubin, who also acted as associate producer on the film. In addition to ``Ghost,'' Rubin worked on the scripts of Wes Craven's ``Deadly Friend'' and Natalie Wood's last movie, ``Brainstorm.'' In the broadest sense, they're all about the same thing, but in ``Jacob's Ladder'' the execution doesn't falter.