A Jennifer Lynch film never fails to polarize audiences. 1993′s Boxing Helena was widely panned by critics and avoided by filmgoers, but a small cult audience – including a few cinema scholars – found much to like about the story of a man and his quadruple-amputee hostage. Surveillance, Lynch’s 2008 followup, was even more divisive. This dark and violent film about differing points of view of a highway slaughter in a small town was either loathed or adored by critics and audiences alike, although the divide was a little more even than in 1993. Lynch’s films will never receive middle of the road reactions, and her latest, Chained is likely to follow along the same response.
Vincent D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket) plays Bob, a taxi driver who happens to also be a serial killer, luring his fares out to his rural home to rape and murder them. One day, Bob picks up a woman (Julia Ormond, Surveillance) and her young son outside a theater and proceeds to take them to his house, murder the mother, and tell the boy that he now belongs to him and will cook his food and clean his house and not ask any questions, and that his new name is Rabbit. Obviously this is no normal father-son relationship, as Bob is evidently grooming Rabbit to take over the family business. As the years go by and the young Rabbit (Evan Bird of AMC’s The Killing) grows into the teenaged Rabbit (relative newcomer Eamon Farren), we are treated to a series of vignettes showing this ‘odd couple’ in action: here’s Rabbit trying to escape; here’s Bob teaching Rabbit some valuable life lessons; here’s Rabbit digging a grave for Bob’s latest victim; here are both of them playing a deranged game of cards using Bob’s victims’ IDs; here’s Bob slamming a high school yearbook down on the table and demanding that the horrified Rabbit pick his own first victim, etc.
This all leads up to the third act and its twist ending, which some will see as needlessly contrived. Yet while the plot itself is simple enough, Lynch’s films are never really about story, are they? Like Boxing Helena and Surveillance before it, Chained is, first and foremost, a character study – one which is driven by the stellar performances of the two main actors. D’Onofrio is blistering in his portrayal of Bob, a tortured soul haunted by his past and determined to pay that torture forward. He owns the screen whenever he’s on it, with his (purposely) unplaceable accent and stooped posture evoking pathos even while evil courses through his veins. And Farren portrays Rabbit with aplomb, displaying the dread of and resignation to his fate in equal amounts and with complete believability. Which is to say nothing of the camera work and editing. With shots that linger for what seems like minutes without dialogue, Lynch and her crew seem perfectly happy – and rightfully so – to just let D’Onofrio and Farren do their thing.
Depending on how you look at Chained once the final credits roll and you’ve had time to absorb it, you can come away with the notion that it’s a rather ham-fisted diatribe against child abuse whose main purpose is to shock, or you can just revel in what are two of the finest performances in genre cinema this year or any year. In actuality, it’s a little bit of both, and perhaps that was Jennifer Lynch’s plan all along.
Reviewed at the 2012 Fantasia Int. Film Festival – 105 Mins.