Sometimes the scariest thing of all is nothing. Literally.
No person to talk to. No books to read. No changes, no surprises — nothing.
Because that’s what solitary confinement is. And that is why it drives people mad.
It’s also the story behind Caged, a taut new film that’s part character study, part mystery, part horror film. As it begins, Dr. Harlow Reid is already in prison, beginning a life sentence for murdering his wife. Reid, of course, swears he didn’t do it.
The guards, of course, don’t care.
It’s a nightmare situation, but it’s about to get worse. Reid’s lawyers have dropped him, and have no interest in taking on his appeal. And one of the guards on his cellblock has taken an instant, and intense dislike to him.
Soon, Reid is in solitary, with only his thoughts to keep him company. And they torture him even more than the guards.
What makes Caged a cleverly economical first feature – only a handful of actors, and a few sets – also make it a challenge. How do you keep an audience’s interest when most of your film is a lonely man pacing a single cell?
The first thing you do is cast someone like Edi Gathegi for your lead, a wiry and intense actor who deftly portrays Reid’s slip into near-madness. The second thing, which director Aaron Fjellman does, is you find natural ways to open the film up.
With nothing to keep him company except his memory, Reid escapes into the past. With no one to talk to except the people he creates, he begins to hallucinate. Faces appear on the wall, and taunt him. His reflection scowls at him from the mirror, and rages.
And because we only meet Reid after he’s been sent to prison, we’re not sure what to think. The treatment he endures could drive anyone crazy. But was he crazy to begin with? We begin to wonder if he really did murder his wife. And so, before too long, Reid wonders, too.
Occasionally, the bareness of the budget shows; occasionally, some of the details don’t quite ring true, or feel slightly overdramatized. (Melora Hardin, the guard who has it in for Reid, isn’t just a loathsome sadist, she’s disfigured, too.)
But Fjellman’s film has many more, subtler touches, like the stains on the cell walls that slowly begin to turn into faces. Or Reid’s many, slightly shifting, recollections of the day his wife died.
Each time he replays that memory, his perfect marriage appears a little more flawed. His wife’s anxiety grows more apparent; his attitude becomes more menacing. Is he just giving himself over to masochistic self-recriminations? Or is he finally coming to terms with who he really is?
That touch of ambiguity gives the film another level; we’re not sure what, or who, to believe. But one thing about Caged isn’t ambiguous: American prisons are brutal, and brutalizing places. And if you aren’t a hardened criminal when you go in, there’s a good chance you will be by the time you get out.