IN "JACOB'S Ladder," a traumatic experience in the Mekong Delta has turned Vietnam veteran Tim Robbins's mind into a terrifying landscape of nightmares, fantasies and illusions.
But, in the movies, a mind is a terrible thing to trace, especially if the director's anything less than masterful in the cinematic magic department. So, who did Tri-Star Pictures select for this daunting stylistic task? Nicolas Roeg? Stanley Kubrick? Ingmar Bergman? No, Adrian Lyne, the man who gave you "Fatal Attraction," "9 1/2 Weeks" and "Flashdance." He is to subtlety what Stalin was to a free market economy.
Robbins is Jacob Singer, a philosophy grad-cum-postal worker who believes demons are out to get him. The movie, essentially Robbins's extended reverie, puts him through ever-shifting dimensions. At first, he seems to be a mailman, living with girlfriend Elizabeth Pena after being kicked out by his wife (Patricia Kalember). Then he finds himself back with his wife and children. In some scenes, the demons seem to be part of a dream; in others, frighteningly real. For a time at least, you're not sure whether his son Gabe (Macaulay Culkin) is dead or alive, or if his chiropractor (Danny Aiello) is an angel or just celestially adept with slipped discs.
Robbins, the lively spark in "Bull Durham" and the otherwise stalled "Cadillac Man," exudes a likable vulnerability here; he registers his paranormal trauma persuasively.
True to his resume, director Lyne produces a frenetic battery of visceral images, ominous music and that ol' faithful standby, the eerie background chorus. Among many things, you'll see human gut-chunks on the floor, vibrating heads and, at a party, lascivious demons; he even gets in another suspense-in-the-bathtub scene. To give Lyne his relentless due, this does make for some heart-thumping moments. But it also causes "Ladder" to fall ultimately flat on its surrealistic face, the victim of too many fake-art sequences.
Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, who scripted "Ghost," aims for some elusive psychological and religious implications about the clashings of good and evil, of angels and devils, human loss and simultaneous planes of existence. But they elude him. Then, after setting you up for an earthshattering, spiritual conclusion, he delivers a disappointingly conventional finale, which indicates that 1) he read Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"; 2) he remembers the government-paranoia movie era of "All the President's Men" and "Three Days of the Condor" fondly; and 3) he liked that "Ghost" ending just a little too much.
JACOB'S LADDER (R) -- Area theaters.