When he was 9 years old, Tim and his mother were abducted by taxi-driving serial killer Bob. Tim’s mother was murdered. Tim was kept as a chained slave, forced to bury the bodies of young women Bob drags home and keep scrapbooks of the crimes. Now a teenager, Tim and Bob share a depraved father/son/protege relationship. But who will ultimately sever the bond between ‘family’ and unimaginable horror?
Jennifer Chambers Lynch hasn’t had it easy as a filmmaker. As the daughter of cult icon David Lynch, she was immediately under immense pressure upon deciding to enter the industry. Her 1993 debut, Boxing Helena, made her one of Hollywood’s youngest female filmmakers, but it was also a catastrophic failure. After having filmmaking on the back burner while she started a family, Lynch returned behind the camera a few years ago, faring much better this time around. She has refined her craft, finally hitting her stride with Chained.
After Sarah (Julia Ormond, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) goes to see a movie with her young son, Tim (Evan Bird, “The Killing”), they get into a taxi to return home. The sign atop the cab reads “Comfort,” but the ride provides anything but. Dread sets in as the driver, Bob (Vincent D’Onofrio, Full Metal Jacket), fails to stop at Sarah’s request. He then locks the doors and drives them to his isolated house, where he murders the mother. It’s clear that this is not the first time he has lured an unsuspecting woman to her death, and it certainly won’t be the last, but the boy is new to the equation.
Bob sees it best to enslave the 9 year old, whom he refers to as Rabbit. He has a number of strictly regulated tasks, which range from cooking and cleaning to helping Bob get away with murder. At best, failure to comply results in a beating. Bob is evidently never a suspect in the many disappearances, as this goes on for some 10 years. Rabbit, now a young adult (and played by Eamon Farren), is still obedient, still chained to the floor, still living in fear. One way or another, something has to change. His metamorphosis from slave to protege is actually rather brisk; the film could have been fleshed out beyond the 94-minute runtime. Still, it’s plenty effective as is, with Rabbit left with the choice between following in his captor’s serial killer footsteps or making a last-ditch attempt at freedom.
The choice proves to be more complex than one might think. As much as we, as the viewers, hate to see Rabbit succumb to the evil ways, there is clearly a bond between the pair. Rabbit’s actions can be attributed to Stockholm syndrome, but Bob takes on the role of surrogate father, even encouraging the boy to learn. Rabbit’s only other human interaction comes in the form of brief encounters with Bob’s soon-to-be victims, and he hardly knows the world beyond the walls that entrap him. The intense, dramatic scenes are unfortunately cheapened by a twist ending. It’s a nice shocker, sure, but it takes away from an otherwise low-key film.
D’Onofrio steals the show with his chilling portrayal of Bob, far more than a mere one-dimensional serial killer. Haunted by his past, his father’s sickening, perverse abuse turned him into a monster. Physically brutish and emotionally unstable, he effortlessly shifts between apathetic to sympathetic and back. Bob’s lisped speech and peculiar mannerisms imply that he suffers from some mild mental disability (although never confirmed), but it only provides a false sense of hope, as he is more sly than he appears. (“Everything you do, I let you do,” he starkly tells Rabbit after one foiled escape attempt.) Farren’s understated performance is also commendable.
The well-shot film looks wonderful on Blu-ray, which comes in a combo pack with the DVD. The disc also features an audio commentary by Lynch and D’Onofrio and, most notably, an alternate version of one of the murder scenes, which was removed to avoid an NC-17 rating. It’s not a particularly disturbing sequence – it’s only a bit more graphic than the one in the final cut – but I wish it had been reinserted and released as the unrated director’s cut. It’s a shame to see such censorship, but at least it’s included on the disc.
Chained has its shortcomings – some suspension of disbelief is required; the moral dilemma is somewhat ham-fisted; Bob’s backstory is banal; the aforementioned twist is belittling; the plot will be compared to Stevan Mena’s recent Bereavement (which, although conceptually similar, differs in execution, and each one is successful in its own right) – but manages to overcome them, for the most part. It’s unsettling when it needs to be, but it’s more effective as a character study; Rabbit’s strange relationship with Bob is an engaging one. Chained is Lynch’s strongest effort to date. With consistent output like this, she will no longer have to live in her father’s shadow.