“Empathy, that one’s very advanced,” Mabel (Jess Weixler) tells her co-star Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), who is asking for her advice on how to emote, having only been in a school play before being cast in his first feature in “Chained for Life.” He’s been hired for his looks – his severe facial deformity making his an ideal fit for a pretentious monster movie – and the fact is Mabel has been too, cast as the beauty to his beast, and keeping up appearances of her own by stooping beneath her station to build her indie cred, yet even with this in common, Mabel finds it difficult to look at Rosenthal directly in the eyes, kindly answering his questions but looking for any opportunity to politely exit the conversation.
The two are stuck on a set that’s become a circus well before a bearded lady shows up, and writer/director Aaron Schimberg doesn’t miss a single trick in recreating the frenzy of even the smallest scale production as crew buzzes about working towards one common goal, but ultimately becomes the culmination of various agendas, often in direct conflict with each other. Money may be saved by housing the cast and crew in the same building used for the film’s hospital set, but it doesn’t spare the sanity of those that stay there, particularly Mabel, who dutifully puts up with the veiled come ons from her other co-star (Stephen Plunkett) and can overhear criticisms of her performance as a blind woman in the halls. Likewise, the faux film’s director, credited as Herr Director (Charlie Korsmo), aims to make a film about beauty that transcends the superficial, yet indulges in ugly tropes to get there, hauling in twins and little people he can’t be bothered with spending much time with or developing actual characters for.
There’s a gorgeous, lacquered quality to the way cinematographer Adam J. Minnick shoots the film inside the film (notably having done this dance before in the reality/fiction blurring “Actor Martinez”) and how it extends to reality behind the production that becomes a kind of chrysalis for what Schimberg is really up to. Although “Chained for Life” initially comes off as a self-reflexive satire for cinephiles — complete with an opening quote from Pauline Kael’s rumination on how movie stars were radiant enough to obscure the graphic violence of “Bonnie and Clyde,” it grows into a genuinely provocative study of people attempting to escape the boxes they’ve been placed in or they’ve created for themselves because of their appearances, not letting anyone off the hook including its captive audience, and while their onscreen counterparts can’t say the same, Weixler and Pearson were clearly cast for the multitudes they contain.
Working from a script in which great care was put into the often careless word choices that fly around the set, it becomes transfixing to watch Weixler, who possesses self-awareness and an ability to radiate curiosity that’s unrivaled, have a field day gradually catch up internally to what she says in public out of political correctness or self-interest, almost entirely through expression alone. Meanwhile, the gentle voice of Pearson, at odds with a face that has been ravaged by non-cancerous tumors in real life, surprises as much as he did in his memorable turn in Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” yet given a greater role, he exudes a charm and affability as Rosenthal that can’t help but bring down the defenses of those around him. Ultimately, that quality extends to “Chained for Life” as a whole, as one layer of artifice skillfully constructed by Schimberg and crew recedes after another to arrive at an conclusion bracing in its emotional directness, giving some comfort in seeing a traditional hero’s journey through to its end yet raising questions about whether the right things were taken away from the experience or if we were even following the right “hero” in the first place. For a film in which most of the characters spend plenty of energy contemplate the value of superficialities, it’s the beauty of the ideas that resonate most, resulting in a most satisfying conclusion.