Chained (2012)

First published by Little White Lies

Jennifer Lynch’s Chained begins where her previous psycho-pulp Surveillance ended: with a child being damaged, perhaps irreparably, by forced exposure to the psychopathic behaviour of adults. After seeing an illicit horror film together, nine-year-old Tim (Evan Bird) and his mother Sarah (Julia Ormond) take a cab home – but they never get there, as crazed taxi driver Bob (Vincent D’Onofrio) adbucts them to his remote farmhouse. There Sarah is quickly killed, while the young boy is effectively imprisoned and enslaved. Now renamed ‘Rabbit’, he is tasked with keeping the house clean, serving Bob his food, and helping archive the driver’s licenses of Bob’s many female victims  as well as any newspaper clippings on their disappearances. “I didn’t ask for you,” declares Bob, recalling Eraserhead‘s reluctant father Henry (made by Lynch’s own father when she was only a small child, and in which she had her first on-screen appearance), “but since you’re here I’m going to make the most of it.”

Years later, man and boy (now in chains) have settled into a horrifically dysfunctional family unit, their ‘odd couple’ status only emphasised by the stark contrast in their physical appearance. For beer-drinking Bob is all portly and pot-bellied, while the now teenaged Rabbit (Eamon Farren), fed only on scraps, is an emaciated Laurel to his captor’s Hardy. Bob is a murderous monster, but impressionistic flashbacks suggest that he too, along with a younger brother, had to endure an unimaginably abusive upbringing, making him what he is now – and in his own disturbing way, Bob exhibits a genuine tenderness towards his captive, as well as an interest in his education. “You don’t want to be shackled to this house for the rest of your life, do you?”, asks Bob, resorting to a formula familiar to many a parent – except that in this case, ‘shackled’ is no metaphor.

It is when Bob starts taking an interest in Rabbit’s sexual development, and determines to help the adolescent get his first “taste of a woman”, that Rabbit must grow up quickly and decide whether to follow in the footsteps of his ‘father’ or to fly the nest once and for all (if the latter option is even possible). And so Lynch’s brutal ‘buddy pic’ takes some very dark turns, culminating in a walloping twist of a coda. Whether that twist is actually necessary or relevant – and I’m still undecided – this is a bleakly claustrophobic film about the ties that bind, with a closing credits sequence that uses sound alone to summarise perfectly all the preceding tensions and ambiguities about nature and nurture.

There must be something in the air – for these themes have been similarly explored in The Seasoning House, Paura 3D (both also screening at this year’s FrightFest) and Stevan Mena’s Bereavement (not to mention Michael), all of which feature children brutalised by the adults who have power over them. Perhaps, in the light of the credit crisis and environmental degradation, Chained is dramatising the hellish world that we are all both creating for and bequeathing to the next generation – or perhaps Lynch is just getting back at her own father for the anxieties that he expressed in his debut about children like herself. For, given the oppressive and not altogether loving milieu in which it was briefly raised, who knows what the baby from Eraserhead might have grown up to be?

© Anton Bitel