Please Note: The stills used here are taken from the bonus DVD included in this combo, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
This might get me branded as some kind of sicko, but for a movie that apparently was almost rated NC-17, Chained is rather tame, at least in terms of onscreen gore. Lots of terrible things happen in the movie, but director Jennifer Lynch (Boxing Helena) shows a surprising level of restraint in an era when horror movies about sadists and torture demand ever-sickening depictions of violence. What is most violent in Chained is not the murders, but the mental games that one man plays on another, the damage that is inflicted on a child's psyche.
The film starts off building tension right out of the gate. The happy scene of a mother and son going to see a horror movie together quickly goes the wrong way when they are picked up by a twisted cab driver using his taxi to trap victims. Vincent D'Onofrio plays Bob, a nasty piece of work who likes to take his female fares back to his remote home and do unspeakable things to them. On this trip, he gets more than he bargained for. He kills the mom (a brief cameo by Julia Ormond) and keeps the child, renaming him Rabbit. For these first few scenes, Rabbit is played by Evan Bird (TV's The Killing), but Chained quickly jumps ahead a few years, to when Rabbit has become an adult (and played by Eamon Farren, who looks like a lesser-Baldwin to Robert Pattinson). For the last nine or ten years, Bob has kept the boy as a prisoner, forcing him to clean up after his killings and make his lunch. After a failed escape attempt, he keeps Rabbit on a long chain. The servant can roam the house, but even if he could get out, the chain would hold him close.
So it is that Rabbit grows up imprisoned in a slaughterhouse. He and Bob form a strange bond, with Bob--who has, predictably, flashbacks to his own abuse at the hands of his actual father--acting as a kind of parental figure to the boy. Rabbit turns into a sallow young man, bereft of much personality, scarred irreparably by his mother's screams. Bob does his business mostly behind closed doors, letting Rabbit see only the aftermath. That is, until Bob, feeling a fatherly impulse, decides to teach his "son" the family business. Then it becomes a sort of cat-and-mouse game, though with an added kitten whom the cat pushes toward its prey.
There is plenty that is unsettling about Chained. Jennifer Lynch, who wrote the script, adapting it from an earlier screenplay by Damian O'Donnell, has a strong sense of what it takes to build a creepy mood. Most of the movie takes place in Bob's house, and the stark set is nicely designed so that the emptiness and squalor matches the similar qualities in Bob's soul. Lynch cloaks the first couple of killings in a queasy pallor, allowing our disgust to match Rabbit's. This slowly begins to fade, however, the deeper Bob pulls Rabbit into his world. It's not that the events get any less grisly, yet somehow I found myself becoming numbed to Chained's horrors.
My guess is that the failing lies with D'Onofrio's performance. You'd think the actor would get tired of playing psychotics and weirdoes. Based on Chained, it looks like he's having a harder time coming up with new tricks to keep the roles distinct. He plays Bob as a lummox with a speech impediment, and rather than being unsettling, it's kind of comical. Like he based the whole character on the many Looney Tunes parodies of Lenny from Of Mice and Men.
The best scene in Chained comes at the pivotal moment when the film swings into the final third. Rabbit is finally being pushed into taking his first victim, a high school girl played with heartbreaking gravity by Conor Leslie. How this plays out in the moment is very effective, so it's all the more a pity that everything Lynch does after that gets increasingly ridiculous. She strives to create both a redemptive element in the final act and also toss one last twist at the audience. I suppose the showdown between Bob and Rabbit works okay, but the aftermath is just silly, with an ambiguous final scene that will leave you more perplexed than intrigued.
Chained comes to Blu-Ray as a wide 2.40:1 transfer, with a 1080p HD picture. The overall look of the film is purposefully dismal, so it's not one that really benefits any extra from the high-def upgrade. That said, what is presented here looks good, maintaining the dark and degraded setting, showing in great detail the sets, costumes, and other aspects of production. Dark scenes look good, and I saw no instances of blocking or pixels.
The entire movie is also included on a bonus DVD, in case you wanted to watch it on your standard-definition system.
The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 does a solid job, though it seems a little more could have been done overall to add to the tension of scenes by working with the sound effects to create a feeling of distance, particularly when terrible acts are occurring outside the frame. There are some decent effects here, nudging some of the more ambient sounds around in the speakers, but nothing too immersive. Dialogue is always clear and easy to hear.
Subtitle options include English Closed Captioning and Spanish.
The bonus DVD has a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.
If you liked Chained, then you are certain to like the commentary recorded by Lynch and D'Onofrio. It's clear that they are both passionate about the project and they get into why they made some of the decisions they did and how the whole thing came together. Even as someone who didn't appreciate the film, I do appreciate the level of craft and passion evident here.
A very short alternate take of the killing of a drunk that Bob brings home is loaded on as an extra, but it is superfluous.
The trailer is enclosed.
Rent It. I've seen more squandered horror movies this year, and worse torture porn films, so Jennifer Lynch's Chained doesn't go fully in the dumper for me. The overall moody atmosphere works, and there are some good individual scenes that will give you the creeps, but a cartoony performance by Vincent D'Onofrio and a laughable final act mean that the good stuff just isn't good enough.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.