Year: 2019
Director(s): Aaron Schimberg
Writer(s): Aaron Schimberg
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: n/a
Color, 91 mins

Synopsis: An actress struggles to connect with her disfigured co-star on the set of a European auteur’s English-language debut. (Source)

In more ways than can be known or acknowledged, we’re held captive by others’ perception of us. By nature, we need things to be nice, neat and tidy. In fact, we’ll often choose to see each other in idealized ways, just as long as these fantasies never breach our own comfort zone. This primal obsession for convenience is ofttimes defined as beauty, and is the foundation of Aaron Schimberg’s Chained for Life. On surface, Schimberg’s film is an aggressively bizarre oddity rife with offbeat charm and deadpan humor. Deeper, it’s a labyrinthian exploration of the truths hidden in fiction. Confronting head on how physical disability is often coupled with casual prejudice, Schimberg’s created a delectably meta experience that gets deeper and more urgent with each frame. 

Mabel (Jess Weixler) is in the middle of filming her latest movie, a snobby exploitation project from a German auteur. It’s being shot in the midst of a crumbling hospital, and is actually about a mad scientist who wants to “cure” his patients of their physical deformities. There’s a palpable energy on set, and when a new batch of actors arrives, Mabel and crew are eager. But something is slightly off. The actors standing in for the fictional doctor’s experiments are treated like outsiders. Their genuine physical disabilities seem to be keeping them at arms length from the cast and crew. One of these actors, a man named Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), has neurofibromatosis, a condition which has left his face disfigured. Rosenthal strikes up a friendship with Mabel, and before long, personal and professional feelings of life, love and art begin to blur. 

What makes Schimberg’s film feel so fresh is its ability to mix in honesty with savage, self-effacing satire. While the movie-in-a-movie idea isn’t anything new, Schimberg’s surreal use of it challengers us to rethink the idea of beauty, and how so much of our lives is limited by our crutch to it. As the film progresses, it gets harder and harder for us and on-screen characters to tell what’s real and what isn’t. Each scene feels like it’s peeling back another layer of stagnant societal norms. It’s here where the film thrives, lambasting stereotypical views of physical handicaps with wit and complexity. At the end of it all, Schimberg doesn’t wrap things up in a way that feels self congratulatory or sentimental. Instead, we’re left with a lot to think about and the film is as affecting is it is sincere and unflinching. 

Chained for Life review Jess Weixler Stephen Plunkett

In addition to Schimberg’s heady direction, Jess Weixler and Adam Pearson navigate a nuanced myriad of ideas. They are the humanity amidst defiant eccentricity. As our entry point, Weixler’s Mabel treads a fine line. Her performance is  reactionary, feeling sincere even if it slightly dips into caricature. On the other hand, Adam Pearson’s Rosenthal keeps us guessing. By design, many of his scenes are given to us without context. We end up getting the rug pulled out from beneath with a few narrative twists and turns. Because of this, Pearson’s performance operates on multiple levels. It shifts and gains new meaning once the true intention of each scene is revealed. The rest of the ensemble is textured and lively, with each performer creating a tapestry of conflicting and colliding vantages and flavors. 

Chained for Life smartly dissects invisible barriers, both physical and psychological. It’s one of the best films of its kind, tackling the nature of cinema itself, and what we’ve grown to unwittingly demand from it. Is the beauty within cinema just a locked cycle bound to repeat a narrow view of what life and love really is? Clear answers can’t be found in this film, but rather a very pointed urge to look deeper within. Schimberg’s way of exploring how his outsiders fit in not only within the industry, but within society is fascinating and cathartic. This is absolutely a new classic that dances to its own rhythm all while deconstructing the flimsy veil between truth and fiction.