After a serial killer (Vincent D'Onofrio) murders a mother, he keeps her young son (Evan Bird) captive until his teenage years (Eamon Farren) and teaching him all that he knows in the hope he'll follow in his footsteps.
Director Jennifer Lynch hits her stride with this bleak, claustrophobic and brutal serial killer drama. Having survived the noted failures Boxing Helena and Hisss (the latter documented in Penny Jovniak’s Despite the Gods), Lynch here presents nuanced, sepia-tinged menace with a clear and determined eye. Many, though not all, of the heinous acts are committed off-screen, but the director’s foreboding is so convincing, her film feels a lot more violent than it actually is.
D’Onfrio’s killer is an unforgivable monster
Chained’s deceptively simple story begins with the terrifying abduction of a mother (Julia Ormond, in a thankless bit part) and her son, 'Rabbit’ (Evan Bird). They flag the cab of driver Bob (a hulking Vincent D’Onofrio), who leads a secret life as an abductor and killer of young women. After killing Rabbit’s mother, Bob imprisons him in chains and raises him as a type of live-in caretaker/accomplice as the boy grows into a young man (the strikingly angular, suitably ashen Eamon Farren). Bob continues to bring home victims, with Rabbit resigned to his actions out of fear of violent retribution. Soon, Bob feels it’s time for Rabbit to learn the tricks of his trade as well as experience carnality, though the neophyte is not the man his captor hopes him to be.
Treading similar if slightly grungier ground as Markus Schleinzer’s paedophile drama Michael, Chained asks whether a lifetime of frightened servitude and acceptance of a violent household can corrupt an innocent. The warped ties that bind Bob and Rabbit make for constantly uncomfortable interaction, and some may find the relentless mid-section of the film, where Bob systematically brings home screaming abductees to the shocked but immobile Rabbit, too dark.
D’Onfrio’s killer is an unforgivable monster and the actor, utilising his substantial girth and masterly vocal technique in a layered performance, conveys sociopathic intent better than anyone. But D’Onofrio, so good all those years ago as the solder/killer in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, also elicits a minor amount of empathy for Bob, mainly through his dream/flashback visions in which we learn of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his own father. (A cliché that's nevertheless used effectively by Lynch.) Some very dark comedy soothes the horror, too; in one scene, Bob and Rabbit play a game of trumps with the ID cards of his victims.
Farren is also suitably fine, conveying fear and submissiveness with precision, and is particularly good in scenes opposite Conor Leslie’s Angie, the high-schooler who Bob abducts for Rabbit’s sexual and homicidal debut.
Chained also offers up an interesting talking point for those who like to speculate: Just how difficult has it been for Jennifer Lynch to carve her own career path in the shadow of her eccentric filmmaking father, David? All of her films to date, including the under-seen but intriguing Surveillance, have, to varying degrees, featured mentor figures who hold their charges in a dark, damaging grasp"¦
Note: Chained will screen as part of The National Film and Sound Archive’s Cult of Arc programme on April 13 with David Lynch’s Eraserhead.