Control. Control of our surroundings, control of ourselves and sometimes, control of others. Residing at the top of nature’s food chain, humans are apt to exert their influence where they can in nature’s hierarchies, even to the extent of instigating and perpetual cycles of abuse. It’s an easy trap to fall into, one explored in Chained, one of the finer Canadian films to screen at this year’s VIFF,
Amidst the decaying surroundings of the fictional Grifton, Michigan, 13 year-old Taylor (Marlon Kazadi) cultivates a green thumb in a secret garden with best friend Nora (Leia Madu), much to the consternation of his father Pete (Adrian Holmes), an over-worked cop who feels his only son lacks the toughness to make it in the world.
After outrunning some stock middle-school bullies, Taylor seeks refuge in an abandoned factory only to find himself face to face with the wild-eyed Jim (Aleks Paunovic), a criminal stuck at the scene of his own crime by 20-foot length of chain. A corpse rots away in the corner, one Jim denies responsibility for.
Sensing strange things afoot, especially given his dad’s rendezvous with the dirty Detective Smith (Roark Critchlow), Taylor declines to call 911 instead forming a twisted bond with the hobbled criminal through gifts of food, water and the occasional game of Battleship.
But unlike Taylor’s plants, Jim is an increasingly agitated human, not content to stay rooted in a decaying hellhole, especially when there’s a stash of half a million in a crackhouse safe for the taking. Taylor has other plans for that loot however and he’s not above exercising some inherited abusive tendencies from his father to secure the prize for himself.
I can earnestly say that Chained is one of the more impressive Canadian features to come along in recent years. The themes of abuse and power are universal ones that ring true to anyone who has ever felt trapped, at home, work or anywhere. Titus Heckel directs his own meaty script that is capably brought to life by a stellar cast with Kazadi earning his stripes as in-over-his-head lead and Paunovic walking away with a career best performance.
The mise-en-scéne here is first rate, from the moody lighting and focused framing of Vince Arvidson to the eye-catching production design of Jim Cliffe and Adrian Traquair, everything about the film’s presentation envelops you from opening logos to end credits. The same goes for the sonic environment with Alfredo Santa Ana’s pulsing score and Kevin Hamilton’s first-rate sound design elevating every frame.
If anything knocks this show down from a perfect score, it’s the pedestrian line delivery from some of the supporting cast (like I said, stock bullies) and the unfortunate fact that yet another Canadian production had to situate itself in America. While Michigan makes for a suitable decaying and depressed backdrop, there’s not enough uniquely American about this story to force it south of the border other than distribution concerns. In that regard, I wish Chained all the best. It certainly deserves a wider audience than even one of Canada’s larger film festivals can provide.
Chained screens as part of VIFF on Thursday, October 1, 8:30pm at the Vancity theatre