With its sunny daylight ranch exteriors and sparse, sickly yellow interiors, Jennifer Lynch's Chained is not playing subtle at being a domestic dysfunction drama. But seeing how the film is also firmly exists in the gory serial-killer box, it is one of the more subtle and affecting entries in that particular sub-genre. This dichotomy makes the film a bit of an enigma, drifting between two radically different discomfort zones, but one that lingers because of it.
Tim and his mom (Julia Ormond, doing the director a favour here after knocking things out of the park in Lynch's previous thriller, Surveillance) get dropped off at the movies by dad. Living dangerously and in the interest of bonding, mom decides to let her 9 year old (at his request) check out a horror flick instead of the CGI kiddie movie. Catching a taxi home afterwards proves the real horror as the cabbie is quite unlicensed, and uses his gleaming yellow car as a way of getting easy victims. The cabbie's name is Bob and he is a serial killer. This is perhaps a nod to Ms. Lynch's father's spiritual serial killer of the same name from the Twin Peak's TV series featuring an isolated town and dead girls, for which Jennifer wrote the Diaries of Laura Palmer when she was a teenager. Bob takes the immediately suspicious (and immediately powerless) mother and son out to his isolated (no cellular signal) bungalow where he has his way, both in a sexual and violent sense, with mom but is at a momentary loss with what to do with a nine year old. In a coarse and lispy grunt, the cabbie tells the Tim, "She's not ever coming back, get used to it." And then he keeps him around to do the cooking and the cleaning - where the first job of non-indentured servitude is disposing of mom's mutilated corpse.
Bob is played by Vincent D'Onofrio, one of those versatile character actors who has been lost on network TV for some years, but has played everything from a struggling marine trainee (Full Metal Jacket) to Thor (Adventures in Babysitting) to Orson Welles (Ed Wood) to goofy alien antagonist (Men in Black) to a noseless thug (The Salton Sea) to yes, a deranged serial killer (The Cell). Here he is heavyset and brutish, no nonsense approach to life and memorable manner of speech. His father-son relationship with captive Tim is the heart of the film, black and twisted as it is. As several years pass, the victims (exclusively women) begin to pile up to the point where the two of them can play a disturbing game of 'go fish' with the collected set of drivers licenses. The film settles into the odd rhythm of Bob trying to remake Tim, rechristened him Rabbit, in his own image, less a slave and more an heir, and the nature vs. nurture conflict of Rabbit's unusual upbringing. It is rather heady and exceptionally well-handled stuff for what on the surface is essentially a one-room genre picture. This could have been based on a play. Maybe it was. Bob is nothing if not voracious in appetite, and things eventually head into icky loss-of-virginity for Rabbit, but the friction between surrogate parent and child - what the adult thinks is best for the child's future and how the child wants to take control of their own circumstances - take that Dexter. Tim learns human anatomy from books, but psychology from dear old 'dad.' Bob intones, "Listening is good," but fails to hear anything Rabbit has to say. Probably a common parenting error. He also offers, "Following through is the key to life," which is loaded with more than a bit of ironic foreshadowing.
If the film were content to stay with this tense drama, I would be proclaiming this film a minor masterpiece of the genre. But the writers (Damien O'Donnell and Jennifer Lynch), whether intending to really drive home the theme, or merely add an extra layer of clever to what is an oddly paced and low-key affair, decide to do some 'rug-pulling' in the plotting department that struck me as rather odd. I love the final shot and subsequent continuation of audio for the entire credit crawl, but the penultimate bit of extraneous family drama takes the film out of good stretching-the-audience drama and into bad over-plotted genre bombast. Even the former title of the film, Rabbit, suggests a more subtle and less pandering piece than Chained. As it stands, the film is very much worth your time, a conversation piece that is only enhanced by its NC-17 rating (apparently for 'realism' instead of the usual movie sex and violence) and when you get to the kooky ending, you can decide for yourself. The film stays with you.