By Bears Rebecca Fonte
There is no point in the running time that CHAINED FOR LIFE is an easy film. Writer-director Aaron Schimberg fills every minute with a sort of uncomfortable tension that assaults the viewer with their own prejudices. It is a fairly active viewing process that forces the audience to constantly reassess their own emotions as well as interpret what is actually happening on screen.
Set against the backdrop of a 1940s exploitation film about what the director of the film within the film can only refer to as freaks, Schimberg’s drama captures the on-screen and off-screen interactions of a hastily assembled cast of real life outsiders. Framed as it is by an opening quote from Pauline Kael about actors having to be attractive, CHAINED FOR LIFE plays around with the audience’s preconception of beauty as embodied by the lead character Mabel (Jess Wexler). Wexler plays an actress playing a character who is blind — the only professional actress on set to suggest a medical condition — amongst a cast collected, admittedly, straight out of the carnival. She strikes up a friendship with her co-star, a man with neurofibromatosis by the name of Rosenthal, played by actor Adam Pearson, who has the same condition. Rosenthal turns out to be the most charming and friendly everyman so it’s easy to see why Mabel seems to spend all of her off-screen minutes with him. However, the audience is never quite sure if Mabel is actually charmed by Rosenthal or is just trying to be polite. And honestly, for this viewer, I wasn’t sure if Wexler was charmed by Pearson or just trying her best. It’s the sort of uneasy reality meets story that the film confronts you with.
From a technical standpoint, the film is gloriously shot and looks amazing. The scene design and costuming completely capture the aesthetic of the Hollywood B Movie. Charlie Korsmo gives a fantastic performance as the German auteur director, his first screen appearance in over 20 years. The script playfully jumps between reality and scenes shot for the film within a film, more than once fooling the audience, but not in a gotcha way. Instead the film is a confident expression of theme over plot, the kind of experience that stays with you for several hours after your first watching. I’m not going to say the film is perfect by any means, but it is definitely something of a statement about perspective. So few films bother to even attempt to make a statement anymore, especially in the genre space, that you must applaud a film like CHAINED FOR LIFE that is overflowing with actual difficult ideas, and putting actors in places where they have to confront their own prejudices.