Film Review: CHAINED FOR LIFE (2018)

Film Review: CHAINED FOR LIFE (2018)

Jul 29, 2018

Director: Aaron Schimberg
Writer: Aaron Schimberg
Stars: Jess Weixler, Adam Pearson, Stephen Plunkett, Charlie Korsmo

Sometimes, a film requires multiple viewings, in order to fully explore the layers, the depth; getting to the heart of what the message is that is being conveyed. CHAINED FOR LIFE is absolutely one of those kinds of movies; but much like its characters, writer/director AARON SCHIMBERG’S modern-day meditation on Tod Browning’s 1932 masterpiece, FREAKS, turns out to be so much more than the like-minded pseudo-exploitation piece that it first appears to be.

Where Browning’s original gave its physically-challenged cast a sense of respect and even gravitas that audiences never picked up on, since they couldn’t get past the physical appearances of the actors; Schimberg appeals to and reaches hopefully for the more enlightened impulses and perceptions of modern-day audiences, most of whom are aware of the challenges that “others” face in society, all the while existing no differently from so-called ‘normal’ people.

Working from the ‘meta’ storytelling trope of presenting a film-within-a-film, the title, first of all is derived from a 1952 exploitation cult classic about a then-famed pair of Siamese twins, the Hilton Sisters.  But applied here, it could be just as much about how our lives are inescapably anchored by the perceptions of others as to how ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’ we are, and the ripple effect that has in our perceptions of ourselves.  More than that, the effect on the manner in which we conduct our own lives as well.

JESS WEIXLER, who was so amazing in TEETH, stars here as “Mabel”, the principal actress of the piece. Working with a famed European auteur known only as “Herr Director” (CHARLIE KORSMO), making his English language film debut (he may or may not be German, and might have grown up in a circus environment – no one really knows), Mabel is playing a blind woman who may be given her sight back by a doctor, portrayed by self-important, co-starring actor Max, (STEPHEN PLUNKETT), whose specialty seems to be corrective surgery for the physically-challenged.  He has romantic designs on Mabel, but she begins to grow closer to another of his patients, played by a disfigured actor named Rosenthal (ADAM PEARSONUNDER THE SKIN). Rosenthal is afflicted with neurofibromatosis, the same disease that John Merrick, the original “Elephant Man”, grappled with. And the audience’s impressions of the film’s structure and tone will be changed considerably, once they realize that what Pearson is working with isn’t just impressive prosthetics – it really is him.

More than just a wryly funny commentary on the inner workings of an independent movie set, it calls back to similar films that have employed the multiple storytelling device, to reveal the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which actors working together so closely on a film, discover how the roles they’re playing and the story that they are telling can influence and even transform their ‘normal’ lives, and vice versa.

Mabel’s on-screen relationship with Rosenthal becomes a refracted mirror that through its prism, reflects their off-screen interactions as well. What at first appears to be a confusing kaleidoscope of time-and-dimension-hopping, becomes less so, once we realize that the director is also exploring the reveries of both the principal actors and the castmates’ speculations about their relationship…another result of the ‘ripple effect’ of the filmed storytelling, seeping into and influencing ‘real’ life.

The film opens brilliantly with a Pauline Kael quote, about how we love to gaze upon the physical beauty of actors, and how that beauty imbues them with the privilege of being able to portray more roles. In contrast to said quote, Schimberg intentionally gives just as much screen time to Pearson as he does to Weixler, almost as a means of debunking that very same quote. To show us that acting talent can transcend physical challenges – not a new message at all, but one that still carries a powerful charge, nevertheless.

The backdrop for where all the action takes place is an old sanitarium, where the ‘disabled’ actors stay, while the rest of the cast and crew are housed in a nearby hotel. Yet another indication of how the lives of both groups are separated by an invisible social barrier of “propriety”, although as we come to know those characters, we discover that they’re not all that different from those who are taking advantage of their unique qualities, for this high-toned horror picture.

Everything in CHAINED is either an intentional or unintentional nod to Browning’s film, as far as I could tell, and also a commentary on how far things have come since that watershed film. (And how far things have yet to go.)

But the differences that Schimberg accentuates by not making a huge deal out of them, are a new wrinkle that would make Browning smile with glee.  Instead of falling in line with the stereotype of being some kind of “saintly”, almost irritatingly lovable oddity, Pearson’s Rosenthal is allowed to be as thorny, witty and complicated as he is painfully shy – and not just because of his appearance, although he is self-deprecating to a fault with Mabel, maybe more than anyone. And a lot of that is driven by a script change in the ‘movie’s movie’, that takes them both by surprise, precipitating the blurring of lines between celluloid fantasy and reality.

As bittersweet in many ways as it is startling, the final shots that close CHAINED FOR LIFE are the ultimate highlighting of the title, as it applies to Mabel as well as the “special” actors. She is accosted by a rideshare driver who wants to access her fame for his own special agenda – accentuating how we expect actors to be “ON” almost upon command, for an ever-hungry, ever-needy ‘fan beast’ that reveres and traps famous people in an amber of idol worship as the price of celebrity; while Rosenthal and the rest of the actors are seen by themselves on a bus, taking them back to whatever lives they knew they were fated to return to, once the “magic” of being movie stars for what seemed like a hot minute, finally wore off.

We know not how profoundly Mabel’s encounter with Rosenthal and his compatriots will have changed her life and vice versa, but thanks to them and to Aaron Schimberg, we, the audience, know that we most definitely have been affected. Exploring exactly how is going to make for some pretty deep and amazing post-film conversations for quite a while to come.

CHAINED FOR LIFE gets an admirable three-and-a-half out of five stars.