Rabbit raised by wolves

One of the many great things about October is the scary movie festivals. Over the weekend I got to see two excellent flicks from the DC Spooky Movie Festival at the AFI Theater in Silver Spring. Both were immensely sad as well as frightening, and heartbreaking horror shows may be my favorite kind.

Chained is directed by Jennifer Lynch (Boxing Helena) and it has a very simple core: A serial killer kidnaps a woman and her nine-year-old son, kills the mother and raises the son to be a killer too. When the boy is about sixteen he gets a chance to escape. Will he take it, or has he become what he was raised to be?

The killer is played by Vincent D’Onofrio, in a very showy style. In the Q&A after the movie Lynch described him as someone who doesn’t lack intelligence; “he’s just been hit in the head a lot.” He struggles to get words out and speaks arrhythmically, with strangely formal diction. He swings unpredictably between trying to humiliate and control the boy and trying to teach him and, in a twisted way, empower him. There’s a moment when he yells, “Do you know where you are on the food chain?”, and I wasn’t sure whether the answer would be that the boy was at the bottom, or almost at the top–prey only to the more terrible predator who raised him. A lot of the scenes had that kind of vertigo to them, the feeling of no solid ground. There’s a lot of Life Lessons of the Damned and other abusive parenting tricks.

The movie is suspenseful, especially once the “will he escape? will he even try?” sequence begins. And there’s a final twist which I genuinely didn’t expect, and which deepened the sadness and awfulness of what had gone before rather than, as last-minute twists often do, cheapening it.

This is a very tough movie to watch. It isn’t particularly gory, but you’re watching a man try to destroy a child’s conscience.

Lynch came across as very smart and thoughtful in the Q&A. She noted that one reason she ends up doing so many of these stories about confined, “chained” people is that you get more story out of a situation you can’t just walk away from. That struck me as a really smart way to think about storytelling in general. What keeps your character in this story?

About Eve Tushnet

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