Saturday, October 19, 2013

Chained: Child Is Father To The Man

As I've said before, horror movies generally don't get serial killers right. You can't treat them like you would fictional monsters, because serial killers are real, and making them into nigh-indestructible criminal geniuses with a flair for the theatrical cheapens and trivializes the real pain and suffering they cause to people. But that's inevitably what happens: They're bugfuck crazy, dress up in costumes, stage all of their murders as elaborately as possible, taunt their pursuers, and make sure to monologue long enough for the good guy/final girl to get the drop on them (until they return to kill again - franchisability is the name of the game, after all).

And what turns these people into sex-crime supervillains? If there's an explanation (there isn't always one, all the better to make them as close to an unknowable monster as possible), invariably it's an abusive parent, usually (though not always) the mother. This goes all the way back to Norman Bates, and then you've got Thomas Harris' Tooth Fairy and Buffalo Bill, both of whom have serious, serious mommy issues. In Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween, Michael Myers' mother is a stripper with terrible taste in boyfriends, and in Friday the 13th, the mother is the one doing the murdering. What would Freud say about that? Even the recent remake of Maniac, which does a lot right, features a coke-addled slattern of a mother figuring heavily into Frank's fractured psyche.

All of this is just to say that Chained - a movie very much about a serial killer and warped ideas of family - ends up largely being a very pleasant surprise.

We open on a kitchen, shot from a medium distance, almost like a play. There's a boy in the kitchen, and when he hears a buzzer, he rushes to open a door for whoever's on the other side. In comes a man, dragging a screaming, sobbing woman behind him. They go through the kitchen to somewhere off-camera. Then the real screaming begins, and the boy hides under the kitchen table, covering his ears in vain.

The boy's name is Tim, but the man (himself named Bob) calls him Rabbit. Tim/Rabbit and his mother were unfortunate enough to get into Bob's cab one day, and instead of taking them home, Bob took them to his house, out in the middle of nowhere. Bob killed Tim's mother, and decided to keep Tim as his own. A new name, a bed in the kitchen, chores to do (make breakfast, keep the house tidy, make scrapbooks of missing-persons articles, clean up the blood when Bob is done with his latest victim), and books to read (anatomy texts). Bob has decided that he's going to raise Rabbit to carry on the family business, so Rabbit needs to  know the human body inside and out. And because Rabbit tries to run (as rabbits do), he keeps Rabbit on a long, long chain. Long enough to reach to the crawlspace, so Rabbit can dig graves for the bodies Bob buries there.

When it begins, Rabbit is only nine.

With one nicely done cut, we follow Rabbit from his first two weeks of captivity forward in time to his eighth or ninth year in Bob's house. The little boy has grown up, and we get a sense of the warped reflection of domesticity the two have established. Rabbit keeps the house clean, Bob hunts. Rabbit and Bob watch TV in the evenings. Rabbit and Bob play cards - after a fashion, it's a sick memory game using the driver's licenses of all the women Bob has killed - and Rabbit and Bob discuss Rabbit's future. After all, Bob knows Rabbit doesn't want to spend his whole life chained up in the house, and Bob wants Rabbit to carry on in his footsteps. Bob thinks he's teaching Rabbit how to be a man. As is usually the case, the teenaged Rabbit has very different ideas from his "father" about what he wants to do. It is this battle of wills that dominates the second half of the movie, as we learn more about who Bob is and how Rabbit feels about his captivity after all this time.

A lot could have gone wrong with this movie - the idea of serial killer as mentor or father figure is hackneyed enough to make my teeth itch  - but by and large, Chained is a restrained, surefooted examination of the relationship between fathers and sons. The violence occurs largely in the background until the final act, Bob's predations largely observed in their aftermath. Much attention is paid to small details: The plastic safety scissors Rabbit uses to clip newspaper articles for Bob's scrapbooks, the variety of tools hanging up in Bob's garage, alongside two or three freezers and rolls of plastic tarp, mutely awful in their implications. The jar for money, the cigar box for driver's licenses. All just set dressing, but important in sketching out the limits of Rabbit's tiny little world. And the carefully observed human scale of this movie means that we feel just how tiny Rabbit's world is - so much of the movie takes place in Bob's house that the moments that don't feel like as much of a breath of fresh air to us as they would to Rabbit. The colors and light of the outside world gleam and pop compared to the squalid murk of Bob's house, and after long stretches of the same interior shots over and over, new scenery - any new scenery - just serves to sharpen the claustrophobia of the rest of the movie.

Bob is a serial killer done right - he's not clever or creative, he's a crude, fumbling, inarticulate lump of a man, all damage and violence and pain and confusion. His lack of self-awareness makes his past a prison, and though he isn't exactly sympathetic, he's not a caricature or a villain either. He's not a monster, but he does monstrous things, has had monstrous things done to him. We get flashes of his past, and they tell us how Bob became who he is, why he does what he does. Rabbit grows into someone spooky and feral, as confused and damaged as Bob, the interplay between his learned helplessness and rage and grief at his captivity palpable on his face and in every action. When Rabbit rebels, it's not an assertion of decency and humanity, it's the petulance of the boy who doesn't want to be like his father - a warped, mocking, travesty of father-son relationships.

There are no elaborately staged kills or bizarre rituals or taunting clues here. Just a man so emotionally and socially crippled that he's incapable of seeing women as anything more than whores, incapable of interacting with them except through rape, and in his own mind, left with no choice as a result but to murder. His attempts to be a father to Rabbit are equally stunted by his inability to connect or communicate in any terms other than those of violence. Bob so desperately wants to do better for Rabbit than was done for him, but the lessons he learned from his own father damn him, The story's resolution requires us to reconsider what we've seen in what at first seems like a sudden upsetting reversal, but really was there all along, built as deeply into the story's beginning as a man is built into the boy from whom he will grow.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix

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