Sofia Coppola has managed to step out of her father’s shadow and forge what might eventually be a more impressive career than dear old dad. Duncan Jones sidestepped music altogether, changed his name and now directs films a world away (more or less) from his dad David Bowie’s music or film career. Jennifer Lynch hasn’t yet managed to make anything that has measured up to father David’s 30 odd years of directing.
She was off to a poor start with Boxing Helena, a widely panned turkey notable only for a lawsuit involving original star Kim Basinger. Some 15 years later she would come back to directing with Surveillance, a step in the right direction but a film lacking a satisfactory third act that felt heavily in debt to her Dad’s films. Then was the Bollywood/Hollywood monster film Hisss, which hasn’t been properly released in the UK yet but word of mouth is pretty poisonous all round. Her latest film is Chained which feels like the first step on to a more interesting and independent path for Lynch and is one of the most affecting horror films for some time.
Starting off with the picture of happiness as mother and child (Julia Ormond and Evan Bird) are dropped off at the movies by Dad, things take a sinister turn when on the way home they are kidnapped by cab driver and serial killer Bob (Vincent D’Onofrio). The mother is raped and murdered (off-screen) whilst the child cowers in a corner. Once Bob is finished he realises he has this 9-year-old kid to deal with, so he renames him Rabbit and chains him to a bed in his kitchen with the instruction that he be Bob’s slave unless he wants a beating.
Eventually Rabbit is helping Bob clear up the mess after he is done with his victims and burying them in the cellar. We then move forward ten years or so and Rabbit is an awkward, gaunt teenager (now played by Eamon Farren) who has been given more freedom by Bob and has settled into a life of slavery, numb to his master’s murderous habits. Bob starts to teach Rabbit things and grants him access to encyclopaedias so he can learn. As more of a bond and trust develops, it soon becomes clear that Bob is keen for Rabbit to follow in his demented footsteps and forge his own path of killing and the two of them might have more in common than either of them first thought.
Chained is one of the most compelling portraits of banal, compulsive evil seen for some time. Its right up there with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the recent Snowtown in terms of how stark and matter of fact it is. Wisely even though the film had to be trimmed before release, the full extent of Bob’s crimes isn’t shown. Instead it’s left up to your imagination with often a blood curdling scream or a lifeless body the only clue as to what has just occurred. This is most effective in the initial murder scene where a mother’s awful death howl is heard and the camera remains focused on the terrified child’s face for an uncomfortably long time.
This was the smart way to play this as these scenes are more effective and chilling than anything they could have shown us. As the film progresses we barely leave Bob’s crummy bungalow out in the middle of nowhere and Lynch and her camera crew make sure that we are fully aware of the geography of the house and any potential escape route. You begin to put yourself in poor Rabbit’s awful situation and plan how you would escape but then as soon as Bob shows an ounce of humanity towards him you start to question again whether you would stay there and be better off. In the second half this feeling combines with the tension caused by whether this now damaged adult is going to go into murder just to appease his guardian/twisted father figure.
The film is luckily cast particularly well with a couple of stellar performances. Vincent D’Onofrio has flirted with super stardom back in the early 90s but instead went the character actor route. He plays lumbering, lisping Bob like any workaday slob who grunts through his day-to-day and comes home to beer and the TV. Due to his massive bulk and physicality, much of the tension comes from waiting to see if and when Rabbit will take the precious little freedom he has too far and whether Bob will snap the skinny kid in two. Speaking of which, Eamon Farren playing the older Rabbit is amazing. It’s another perfectly cast part with Farren being especially skinny and being able to flip between fear, desperation and determination with ease whilst always remaining a sad and sympathetic figure.
Much like Surveillance unfortunately, Chained suffers from something fatal in the final act which holds the film back from classic status. I won’t say too much but there is something of a plot twist or reveal which feels unnecessary and tacked on to appeal to a more commercial market. The rest of the film is so strong and so affecting however that this is really only a minor mistake.
Chained left me shaken and drained like all good horror should and has lodged itself in my brain permanently. After so many bad horror films lately that were more concerned with style over fear, it’s good to see that some filmmakers are still capable of delivering an effective and thought-provoking ride through the darkness.