If you're frightened of dying, and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing
your life away. If you've made your peace, then the devils are really
angels, freeing you from the Earth.
The movie opens on 1971. Jacob Singer is an air calvary soldier in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam. Helicopters pass overhead, carrying supplies for what appears to be preparation for a big Viet Cong offensive. Without any warning, Jacob's unit comes under fire. The soldiers try to take cover, but begin to exhibit strange behavior for no apparent reason. Jacob tries to escape the unexplained insanity, only to be bayonetted by an unseen enemy.
The film shifts between Vietnam, to Jacob's memories (and delusions) of his son Gabriel, and former wife Sarah, to his present relationship with a woman named Jezebel in New York. During this time, Jacob faces several threats to his life and has severe hallucinatory experiences. It is revealed that his son Gabriel was hit by a car and killed before Jacob went to Vietnam.
Jacob's friend and chiropracticer Louis states the main thematic point of the film: in effect, hell is really purgatory, and those who are ready to let go of their lives do not find the experience 'hellish'.
As the hallucinations become increasingly bizarre, Jacob learns about chemical experiments performed on U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. He is approached by a man named Michael Newman, who claims to have been a chemist working with the Army's chemical warfare division in Saigon. He worked on creating a drug that increased aggression in soldiers. Tests of the drug (code-named "the ladder" in reference to the effect) were first given to monkeys and then to a group of enemy POWs, with gruesome results. Later the ladder was given to Jacob's unit, through the platoons' C-rations. However, instead of targeting the enemy, the men in Jacob's unit attacked each other indiscriminately.
We finally learn that Jacob never made it out of Vietnam; the entire series of experiences turns out to have been a dying hallucination. Jacob's experiences appear to have been a form of purgation in which he releases himself from his earthly attachments, finally joining his dead son Gabriel to ascend a staircase toward a bright light.
At the end of the film, a message states that the US Army allegedly experimented with an hallucinogenic drug called BZ, but the Pentagon denies it.
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