There’s much about writer/director Aaron Schimberg’s (Go Down Death) Chained for Life that is striking. It’s the languid storytelling; the direction which shifts between extended still long takes and listless, flowing movements; and the endless sensation of a persistent dream-like state, challenging the audience to determine what’s real and what’s imaginary. Truly, Chained for Life is a surreal experience which is hard to quantify even after reflection. One thing for certain is that Schimberg’s approach to filmmaking is a breath of fresh air, opting to make bold statements via biting satire carefully constructed in a manner to never make the subject matter the butt of the joke. Rather, Schimberg focuses on the humanity in all of us, highlighting the frequent ridiculousness of cinematic and social coding placed upon individuals, and therefore actors, with disabilities. It would be simplistic to say, “we’re all beautiful” and, instead, Schimberg proclaims, “we’re all human.”
The English-language debut of famed European director Herr Director (Can’t Hardly Wait’s Charlie Korsmo) isn’t going as easily as Mabel (It: Chapter Two’s Jess Weixler) expected. It’s not the real hospital they’re using as a backdrop or even the arthouse horror-vibe of the film which bothers her, it’s her expectations of what this film could do for her. To Mabel, beauty is a thing she has and an actor is a thing she is, but she’s concerned how others see her. When a group of actors with various disabilities arrive on set to serve as the pseudo-villains of the story, Mabel, at first, decides to spend some time with one of them, Rosenthal (Under the Skin’s Adam Pearson), but after getting to know him, finds herself unexpectedly drawn to him.
Multitudes could be written about Chained for Life, but this review will drill down into a few key aspects for both brevity and as a means to not spoil how amazing the experience is. Put simply, Chained for Life is a film possessing many layers, each revealing a new idea or concept as presented or exposed. The opening, for example, is a slow, meandering long take where the cast credits are presented as a figure walks down a hallway, the shoulders and head in center focus, while bystanders can be seen in soft focus around the edges watching the person walk. Soon, the person is revealed, a woman, who moves from an office into an occupied operating room, waving her hands in front of her as she goes. It’s not until a gunshot goes off that everything comes to a grinding halt because what we saw was the movie being made within Chained for Life. This is the first clear signal that not everything we see is to be believed and Schimberg finds new and amazing ways to screw with his audience, in many ways to our delight. Here, though, it serves a specific purpose of declaring how the storyteller within the film, Herr Director, sees the disabled. Under his guidance, with his script, Mabel’s character moves slowly, using only her hands to guide her. She is infirm, helpless, requiring the help of others, believing herself to be in need of a miracle to live a “normal life.” This is a spot-on depiction of how most people with disabilities are presented in cinema: powerless and incapable, until someone “saves” them. Either that or they are depicted as heralds of pure evil or pure goodness (see: The Phantom of the Opera or The Hunchback of Notre Dame). It’s this presumption which is explored throughout Chained and it’s what gives the whole film its bold incisiveness and moving heart. How? Because it makes the “allies” the true assholes. Just like in the 1932 Tod Browning classic Freaks, wherein the typical hero-types were actually the villains, Chained is filled with cinephiles who can quote writers and directors, can argue over the actor’s job to convey truth, and who acknowledge the sordid history of representation in cinema, yet who still are engage in disrespectful, presumptive, arrogant behavior which exudes the “otherness” they proclaim to be above. If, of course, you miss the connection between the two films and their narrative similarity, there’s a moment toward the conclusion which cements the connection, even if in the inverse.
By and large, films about making movies are guaranteed to tickle this reviewer. There’s something about the coming together over a common goal, people reverting to the archetypes of writer, actor, director, and the like, to create something which amuses beyond comprehension. In this case, Schimberg utilizes the narrative style to create confrontation through something whimsical and dreamlike. As in the aforementioned opening sequence, the audience never knows if what they’re watching is part of Chained or the movie being made. Like a trickster pulling pranks, itself a trope often used through cinema in relation to the disabled, Chained refuses to confine itself to any sense of linear progression outside of a clear beginning and ending. Everything in-between flows like a dream, which it very well may be. It’s honestly hard to say for sure if it isn’t. The best example of this is around the midpoint when the cast gathers to watch dailies (raw, unedited footage) of the film. At first, the camera holds on Mabel and Adam sitting together, color from the screen projected onto them as they watch and we listen. In one of several extended, unmoving takes, the audience just watches the two take in the footage until it suddenly switches to a new scene, quickly revealed to be a scene from the film, and then another and another. The audience is given enough information to understand what the plot of the film is, so it’s easy enough to follow along. The key revelation, however, is how Herr Director intends to use Adam and his co-stars as jilted medical patients. Even as scenes jump forward and backward in the chronology of the Herr Director’s project, there’s enough for the audience to follow and process. The fact that this is an aspect that Schimberg uses throughout his own film, not just the fictional one, is what generates Chained’s illusory feel. As such, Schimberg not only challenges the audience’s ideas of storytelling in a non-linear progression, but also the concept of truth vs. imagination, through the subtext of representational significance.
As intriguing as the subtext is within Chained for Life, it’s the text which makes the greatest impact. Schimberg himself declared that he wanted to create something that confronts the cinematic legacy of disabled representation. He does this with aplomb. Schimberg takes great pains to present the actors as exactly that, actors being brought in to play a role in a film. They aren’t what they play in films any more than anyone else is whom they portray and, despite being treated poorly by the main cast, behave as professionally as one might hope a co-worker would in a workplace. That’s what Schimberg captures, what he presents, and what makes Chained so damned powerful. In some respects Schimberg could be described as confrontational in his direction with the consistent long takes, forcing the audience to observe that which cinema dictates as ugly, forboden, or marked and shows us what is real. There’s a scene in which Adam, as Rosenthal, is rehearsing his entrance into the film, the camera once more locked, and Adam walking out of the shadows into view as Herr Director offers notes off screen. Like any other actor in a larger role, he works to nail the entrance, hit his mark, and deliver his line. Over and over, Rosenthal steps into and out of the light. The scene is meant to startle Mabel’s character, and the film’s audience as well, but not Chained’s audience. By this point, we’ve spent time with Rosenthal, gotten to know him, be charmed by him, and get accustomed to his appearance. However, in this lengthy shot and in others, Schimberg challenges the very unconscious bias which cinema’s been propagating since before celluloid. To be clear, though, Rosenthal is no hero and is never presented as one. Neither are his co-stars and Schimberg makes sure to spend time with them to ensure that becomes clear. Chained makes no claims on morality. They just are.
Writer/director Aaron Schimberg’s Chained for Life is a passion project with a clear vision, which more than exceeds its goal. It’s a love story without romance, a horror story without a villain, a dream playing out during waking life, and yet, it could honestly be described as the inverse. What holds it all together are the performances from the cast. All of them, main and supporting alike. Korsmo is unrecognizable from his previous roles, having not performed in a film since 1998, yet he hasn’t lost a step. Stephen Plunkett (FX’s Fosse/Verdon) portrays Max, Mabel’s on-screen brother and scene partner. Off-screen, Plunkett conveys in a few scenes a high intelligence and low empathy that makes him the worst kind of ally, a poser. Weixler bears the brunt of the weight of Chained as the female lead, managing to convey Mabel’s passion for acting, yet absolute insecurity, as though waiting for someone to figure out she’s a fraud. This is, perhaps, why Weixler’s partnership with Pearson is absolutely divine. Pearson plays Rosenthal as totally at ease with himself, even though uncomfortable with long sets of dialogue and being a novice at acting. Separate, Mabel comes across as more lost and seeking sure footing, whereas Rosenthal does not. It certainly helps that Schimberg makes sure to show both Mabel and Rosenthal with their respective groups, offering the audience a glimpse at the life of an actor on either side of the social divide. That said, while most of the main cast has been working in the industry for some time, Chained marks Pearson’s third time in film and he is spectacular, commanding, compassionate, and communicating none of the tropes for which Schimberg seeks to satirize. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.