It’s not exactly news that the ways in which mainstream Hollywood films depict disability are somewhat less than desirable. Disability is more often than not used as symbolic shorthand for broken humanity, a dehumanizing reduction of disabled persons as an acting exercise for able-bodied actors looking to garner award season acclaim without regard to the myths and prejudices those portrayals perpetuate. This is why Chained For Life at once feels revelatory and long-overdue as a scathing deconstruction of the process of making films about disability, forcing you to question whether your apparently progressive understanding of a community is based solely on media that doesn’t recognize them as more than their physical characteristics.
Our audience point-of-view lead comes in the form of Mabel (Jess Weixler), an attractive mid-level actress getting work on a horror film in which she plays a blind woman in a hospital full of “deformed” people, played by real disabled actors in a clear homage to Freaks. While on set, Mabel befriends one of the disabled actors, Rosenthal (Adam Pearson, a noted disability rights activist with distinctive facial features), who quietly and sardonically humors her attempts to give him acting lessons while making deadpan observations about how when she performs empathy it looks an awful lot like pity. As the film’s production progresses, Mabel starts to notice the commonly accepted ways in which the disabled actors are ostracized and othered, forcing her to confront her own prejudices, though thankfully Chained For Life doesn’t tie so neat a bow on this arc that Mabel becomes an able-bodied savior figure.
Writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s screenplay is littered with darkly satirical observations of how actors view disability as a milestone of their craft, operating under the pretense that conventionally attractive features are a limiting factor in real performance and that even supposedly reaffirming representations of disability are fraught with presumptions that disabled people are somehow fundamentally different from others. The production represented in Schimberg’s film is perpetually treating the disabled actors as a cohesive herd of monolithic subhumanity, from armchair analysis from the cast and crew of their inner lives, to conversations behind their backs about potential prosthetic and digital replacement. This even extends to the presumption that the disabled actors don’t need hotel accommodations with the rest of the cast and crew, effectively enlisting the group as unpaid security for the cameras and equipment left at the hospital shooting location.
It’s here that this already meta-textually aware film begins to deconstruct itself, with Rosenthal and the other disabled actors filming their own scenes that bleed into the reality of Chained For Life’s narrative structure. This melding of reality with the fiction-within-fiction calls attention to the daily realities of these characters, the inner lives that are informed by the way the world perceives them but are not defined exclusively by their disabilities. It’s a marked contrast to how the horror film production perpetually paints the disabled actors as outsider oddities, and the narrative deconstruction gets to the heart of why most on-screen depictions of disability have failed to deliver on their empathetic promise.
Chained For Life isn’t precisely a home run, though. It’s bogged down by a subplot about a reportedly “marked” serial killer that places the disabled actors under suspicion from the police but ultimately goes nowhere, and an extended take finale acts as a major gut-punch once the credits roll, but it takes too much of a self-indulgent tangent to get there. However, those are minor annoyances in a vitally necessary film about the ways our popular culture treats those who differ from the ideals of conventional beauty and physicality. Chained For Life turns the mirror on its able-bodied audience, proclaiming the monolithic chant “One of us” not as a proclamation of our shared freakishness, but as a plea to recognize our shared humanity.