The directorial career of Jennifer Chambers Lynch, daughter of that grandmaster of modern film surrealism David Lynch, is composed of a Spartan body of work which has been made the centre of more than its creator's fair share of controversy and trauma across the twenty-year long span it’s taken her to complete a grand total of four films. Her 1993 debut “Boxing Helena” – a dreamlike tale about a man who cuts off the arms and legs of the woman he worships and keeps her on a display pedestal – holds the distinction of having become one of the most critically reviled films of all time, causing “Showgirls” to look like it’s been blessed with the reputation of a “Citizen Kane” when held in comparison. A combination of on-going health issues and the distress caused by the relentless barrage of media hostility directed towards her in the immediate wake of the release of “Boxing Helena” (not to mention the costly legal battle fought with the representatives of actress Kim Basinger during the same period, who persuaded her to pull out of the film only weeks before it was due to start shooting) took their toll on the twenty-four year-old and led the fledgling director to abandon the industry for the best part of the next fifteen years, until a positive reception for her 2007 thriller “Surveillance” (this time a strategically-placed ‘executive producer’ credit donated by her father helped get things back on track) brought about a volte-face in critical perceptions and the chance of a revitalised career for Lynch, now in her 40s. But then another horrendous experience in India, making the Hindi snake woman movie “Hiss” brought back the old demons, and, to make matters worse, the experience was painfully chronicled in full by documentary maker Penny Vozniak for her docu-film diary “Despite the Gods”. The troubles of a difficult and stressful shoot were compounded after “Hiss” was released, still with Lynch’s name on the credits even though the project had been taken out of her control and edited and scored by the movie’s producers in her absence and without her approval: the misbegotten result was widely perceived as an even more embarrassing mistake than had been “Boxing Helena”.
Now the woman whose earliest childhood memories involve her playing on the set of “Eraserhead” with the bandaged mutant baby puppet (nicknamed Spike’) that figures so prominently in the second half of her father’s most warped masterpiece, is back on familiar ground with another taut, disturbing poke into the most damaged areas of the serial killer psyche: “Chained” feels like a consolidating piece of work by a director still struggling to prove herself in the marketplace of critical and public opinion. The downbeat serial killer subject matter may well be powerfully disturbing at times but, the stripped down approach of “Chained”, which concentrates on the ambiguous relationship that develops between a serial killer of young women and the nine year old child of one of his victims, whom he abducts and goes on to raise to adolescence while keeping him chained to a wall in a dingy isolated bungalow for the next decade of the boy’s life, allows Lynch the opportunity to take the more outlandish features and horror thriller elements of such a story merely as the springboard for what becomes largely, for most of its run time, a simple but brutally direct examination of the cycle of abuse and torment that leads to the creation of the kinds of adherent behaviour displayed by the film’s grotesque protagonist: a paunchy, weirdly accented taciturn slob who works as a taxi driver and calls himself Bob (played by Vincent D'Onofrio, best known in younger days for playing the picked-on and unstable Leonard in “Full Metal Jacket”), and who sets himself up as a sort of broken god who inhabits the very centre of his forcibly enslaved victim’s experience of the world at large.
The film starts out as an unsparing, pared-down and semi-detached examination of the initial nightmare process of capture in which Tim (Evan Bird) and his Mom (Julia Ormond) get abducted in broad daylight and driven to the killer’s lair (a modern bungalow set in a strangely flat featureless rural landscape). The boy hears his mother being slaughtered and then gets dragged from the abductor’s yellow taxi cab and told that she’s not coming back, ever, ‘so get used to it!’ Lynch then telescopes many years of the boy’s subsequent indoctrination, up to the age of eighteen, into a mini portrait of perversity and psychological and physical deprivation -- never venturing for most of this first part of the movie far beyond the four walls that come to denote the entire world for the soon rather raggedy-looking caged urchin of a boy, renamed Rabbit by his captor.
Lynch then goes on to catalogue Bob’s surrealistic incarceration regime with a rigorously matter-of-fact, stand-back-and-simply-watch approach that’s effectively augmented by experimental musical collage outfit Climax Golden Twins’ pulsatingly dark and brooding score: the boy is put to work cleaning up the blood after each of Bob’s kills (most of which we, like Rabbit, never see but only hear) having been forced to stand by helplessly as a succession of usually-drunk party girls are dragged screaming through the dingy interior of the rudimentarily furnished house that’s now his home, with its bare floorboards and dingy, peeling walls. He has to cook all the killer’s meals and is only allowed to eat or drink the left-overs from his master’s plates and cups -- and then only when he’s not in the room. He also has to collect any newspaper reports found by Bob about the disappearances of each victim (including one about him and his own mother’s abduction) and carefully paste them into a trophy scrapbook. Any attempt to escape or any break of these rules is to be punished with a severe beating. Unbeknownst to Rabbit, his every action is being videotaped with concealed cameras which Bob watches back at night to check up on him, and which provide the abductor with an aura of omnipresent and omnipotent power in the browbeaten child’s life. After an early and serious rule break, the youngster is thereafter kept chained on a long metal lead that snakes right the way around the interior of the bungalow, but which doesn’t allow him access to the attic where Bob dissolves the dismembered remains of his victims in lime.
The film is at its strongest and most powerfully compelling during what is often a disturbing first act, with a colourful but unsettling performance by D’Onofrio as the mysterious abductor who’s own past history of abuse at the hands of his father becomes all too evident from the screaming fit nightmares and jolting flashbacks he regularly experiences in foetal positioned spasms, making us fear that Rabbit (now played as an adolescent with a pale, gaunt and fragile sharpened cheekbone intensity by Australian actor Eamon Farren) can only eventually go the same way given the utterly perverted upbringing he’s now being relentlessly subjected to. This fear becomes the main preoccupation of the story as Bob attempts to ‘groom’ Rabbit to become his eventual successor, giving him anatomy books to read so that he understands how to ‘take people apart’ (‘I won’t have any child of mine grow up uneducated’) and trying to force him to ‘choose his favourite girl’ from the local college yearbook in order to make his first kill a more pleasurable one! He even ‘gives’ one of his victims to the diffident teenager at one point -- locking him in the bungalow’s grimly unadorned and unfurnished ‘killing room’ with her until he’s plucked up enough courage to give himself ‘a taste of a woman’, then later finally allowing him the luxury of his own chair to sit in (he’s not been allowed to sit in chairs since the age of nine) when the boy appears to have made progress in fulfilling Bob’s long-term plans.
But the problem in all this -- and which ends up becoming all too apparent in the film’s contrived and outlandish premise and the basic structuring of the narrative -- seems to derive mainly from a conflict in intent behind the original source material and Lynch’s re-conception of it. The screenplay, with its largely character-based approach, was the result of a redraft by Lynch of a story outline and an initial draft by Damian O'Donnell, which sounds like it may have been set out along more conventional cops-hunt-a-serial-killer-who-abducts-a-boy type thriller lines, and which Lynch herself had described in some interviews as being ‘sort of torture porny’ and not really of much interest to her in the beginning, until she was given the chance to re-write it. It’s the mismatch of the marriage which results from the seriousness of intent signalled by Lynch’s detached portrayal of the horror of what comes to befall Rabbit in stand-offish, art house, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer-mimicking aesthetics which pointedly understate the oddness and aberrance of what’s often seen transpiring on the screen (the film also reminded me of David Lynch’s approach to “The Straight Story”, although in this case the Zen-like calm is perversely applied to images dealing with abject cruelty and transgressive acts of wanton violence) and the more orthodox intent of the O’Donnell thriller material which still survives here in the form of inappropriate “Saw” style plot contortions and last act manipulations of perspective, all of which end up largely undermining the authority of what started out as a sombre character study of weird, abusive psychology, by plunging it into more tactile suspense thriller territory that seems to lack credibility thanks to its need for narrative summersaults that negate the authentic-seeming psychological character of the film’s first half.
“Chained” is grimly compelling and tough on the nerves for a great deal of its run time and the intensity of the performances leave one feeling uncomfortable (in a good way) with where things are seemingly sure to end up. Lynch at least proves once again that she’s a competent crafts person behind the camera and has a tight mastery of this kind of taut, psychological material. But as with “Surveillance” the tricksy revelations of the final minutes feel just a bit too contrived and make us feel like we’ve been plunged suddenly into a much less serious kind of movie with a whole different agenda from the forensic humanistic examination of the outcome of abuse it started out as. This UK Blu-ray and DVD release by Anchor Bay features the film in a decent enough transfer and with good HD audio, but the only extra is an alternate version of the death scene of one character, which had to have blood digitally removed from a graphic throat slashing in order to avoid a NC17 rating for the theatrical version in America.
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