I had high hopes for this one. It has an intriguing premise: mother and son are abducted by serial killer, serial killer murders the mother and takes the son prisoner, hoping to make him a protege. Alas, as sometimes happens, the execution didn't live up to the initial promise. Jennifer Lynch has yet to reach great filmmaker status.
The film has some good elements. Lynch expertly uses the faintly lit and remote house where serial killer Bob (Vincent D'Onofrio) and his young captive, who he names Rabbit, live to highlight their isolation, an isolation which fuels Bob's derangement and does inconceivable psychological damage to Rabbit. The nine-year-old Rabbit is given palpable anguish by Evan Bird, who adds a streak of youthful defiance to keep the character from abused child cliches (a scene where the young Rabbit tries to escape, Bob pelting him with rocks upon discovery, is wrenching). Eamon Farren, as the older Rabbit, completely disappears into his damaged character, from his torment to later growing smarter and stronger against his oppressor, while holding onto a sense of empathy. This is another thing the film does well, showing Rabbit's stubborn humanity (refusing to select a new victim for Bob, crying under the table during the murders) while Bob tries to eradicate it.
While Farren is a shining light in a mediocre film, D'Onofrio is sadly wasted in what should have been a juicy role. Tall, dark and imposing, he's an ideal choice to play a kidnapper/serial killer. Unfortunately, he (or Lynch) decided to make Bob sound borderline retarded, with stumbling movements and overly stilted speech (though it fits the stilted dialogue). D'Onofrio's regular voice, a low rasp, would be much more effective in portraying Bob as the intimidating force that Rabbit undoubtedly sees in him.
The story shows Bob's indoctrination of Rabbit in a decently paced but not particularly thrilling manner. There are a few decent scenes, like when a teenage Rabbit asks Bob the question anyone who has spoken to a serial killer has asked, "Why do you do what you do?" Bob's answer is similar to what real serial killers have responded, "Why do you do what you do?" In Bob's mind, he can't imagine acting any other way. Lynch, however, uses flashbacks to beat the viewer over the head with the similarities between Bob's own childhood and how he's now treating Rabbit. There's another good scene that could have gotten this point across on its own. Bob, a cab driver, is driving an arguing father and son, and, when he gets home, he breaks down, evidently reminded of his own harsh childhood.
For the most part, this film, while not exactly brilliant, is watchable and mildly engaging, mostly due to the atmosphere and Farren's standout performance. The climactic scene between Bob and Rabbit is rather exciting, and predicated by a plot twist that is both genuinely surprising and strangely plausible, given the situation. However, after that, Lynch apparently didn't know what to do with her characters. She adds another twist that, while unexpected, makes the rest of the film difficult to watch. The viewer is less likely to be enthralled by the shocking turn of events and more likely to get the impression that Lynch thinks her protagonist hasn't suffered enough. It all ends on a shot that would have been poignant if what had come before hadn't been so ridiculous.
The most unfortunate aspect of Chained is that the story of a monster trying to breed another monster had potential, and is a story worth telling. In the hands of the right filmmaker it could have been a masterpiece of psychological horror. For instance, I think one of my favorite new directors, Nicholas Winding Refn of Drive and Bronson, with his eye for shady characters and the nature of violence, could have done something truly great with it. But, as sometimes happens, a good story fell into the wrong hands, and while flickers of its potential remain in the finished product, Chained is nowhere near what it could have been.