Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, March 2013
Synopsis: Brad drops wife Sarah and son Tim at the cinema, recommending they take a cab home. Mother and son get in Bob’s cab, and are abducted to his isolated home. Bob murders Sarah, and informs Tim of the new regime: keep the house clean, serve Bob meals and eat the leftovers, bury Bob’s serial victims in the cellar, collect newspaper clippings on their disappearances, do nothing without permission. After attempting to escape, Tim is chained to the wall by his ankle.
Years later, upset from seeing a father humiliate a son in his cab, Bob decides to start using anatomy textbooks to teach “the human puzzle” to the now teenaged (and still chained) Tim – and reveals that Brad has remarried. Bob’s serial killings continue. A nightmarish flashback shows how, as a boy, Bob endured horrific abuse protecting his younger brother. Unshackling Tim, Bob forces him to choose his first woman from a university yearbook, and brings student Angie home. Tim stabs her, and drags her body to the cellar. Bob takes Tim outside for the first time to “hunt” but, realising that he has been tricked and that Angie is not dead, races home to finish her off. Tim kills Bob.
Tim confronts Brad with a letter proving that Brad had paid his older brother Bob to kill Sarah and Tim. Brad dies in a struggle. Tim returns to Bob’s house.
Review: Legacies sometimes have to be borne like shackles. Though a talented director in her own right, Jennifer Lynch’s very surname conjures a cinematic pedigree that threatens to overshadow her own individual achievements. To put it starkly, when a film is described as ‘Lynchian’, it is not Jennifer and her oeuvre (1993’s much maligned Boxing Helena, 2008’s confident comeback Surveillance, 2010’s disastrous and disowned Hisss) which immediately spring to mind. Yet if her father’s feature debut Eraserhead (1977), whose lengthy production began when Jennifer was still a toddler, is often regarded as expressing Lynch Sr’s fretful ambivalences towards his own paternity, then Lynch Jr wreaks artful revenge with her latest feature Chained, where the enduring heritage of bad fathering – a preoccupation that can be traced back to her 1990 Twin Peaks tie-in book The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer – is explored in agonising detail.
Chained too features a ‘killer Bob’, although unlike the demonic other of Twin Peaks, Vincent D’Onofrio’s crazed cab driver is confrontingly, even absurdly, human – and here, as in Surveillance, Lynch filters the otherwise familiar tropes of the cinematic serial killer through very young eyes. Nine-year-old Tim (Evan Bird) and his mother Sarah (Julia Omond) have just come out of an illicit horror film when they step into Bob’s taxi, where the vicarious, fictive transgressions of cinema fast give way to real atrocities as Sarah is summarily murdered (offscreen) and Tim imprisoned in his captor’s remote farmhouse. Yet despite treating women as entirely disposable receptacles for his most errant drives, Bob is revealed in impressionistic flashback to be as much a victim as his young prisoner, having himself endured horrifying abuse as a boy. Bob is a monster not born but made, and the abominable outrages that he commits are offset by the gruff but genuine affection that he forces upon Tim, making another monster in his own image.
Redubbed ‘Rabbit’, the teenaged Tim (Eamon Farren) is as emaciated as beer-bellied Bob is portly, and their odd-couple relationship, for all its depraved dysfunction, represents a parodic exaggeration of the father-child dynamic. Yet it is when Bob starts letting Tim off the chain, hoping that the boy will follow in his murderous footsteps and determined to guide him through his first “taste of a woman”, that Tim must decide who he really is, bringing all the film’s Oedipal tensions to a bloody head. Like Bereavement (2010), The Skin I Live In (2011), The Seasoning House (2012) and Paura 3D (2012), Lynch’s film is concerned with the damage done to children by the adults who have power over them, perhaps reflecting contemporary anxieties about the economically and ecologically ravaged world that we are bequeathing to the next generation. Accordingly, the chain which Bob attaches to Tim’s leg becomes a vivid metaphor for the inescapable bonds of circumstance and environment that fetter children’s growth and shape what they become – even if a twisty (and somewhat rushed) coda brings genetics back into the thematic mix, playing out the film’s thorny nexus of nature and nurture. File it under bleak, disturbing and claustrophobic, but do not dismiss it as ‘torture porn’.