We’ve seen what prison cells can do to a person. The walls of a prison are not just literal cages that put a captive inside, but they can also have a deeper, more prolonged psychological impact on them. In debutant director, Aaron Fjellman’s “Caged” the prison walls are literal barriers that put its central character in a psychological trajectory that goes absolutely haywire. The result is a chamber piece that looks at solitary confinement and what it can do to the prisoner inside.

Kenyan-born actor Edi Gathegi stars as Harlow Reid – a renowned African American psychiatrist who is convicted of murdering his wife Amber (Angela Sarafyan) when the couple was planning to go on a cruise. Sent to life imprisonment in federal prison and then subsequently forced into solitary confinement, the motion picture captures Harlow’s struggle to file a petition for being not guilty of the crime he has committed.

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Essentially taking place inside a single prison cell, Fjellman takes a rather shock-thriller approach to a narrative that needed a more refined, subtle outlook. This is a film that could use some real moments with the likes of a little character depth. We only know that Harlow is an African American man who is probably put into confinement due to America’s mostly biased and racist system.

Fjellman avoids diving into these thematical elements in the lure of a more fast-cut approach to the horrific impact of being in a prison cell with almost no human contact. Broken into little chapters that are punctuated with the number of days he spends in the cell, the film relies too much on hallucinatory visuals and flashbacks that are so lously written that its overall implications don’t rattle you.

It instead leaves you wanting to know the central character more, while that aspect is nowhere to be found in hindsight. The other thing where the film fails miserably is focusing and building the cell in charge as a villainous figure. Melora Hardin (known famously for her role in The Office) stars as Officer Sacks. She boasts a rather unimpressive makeup that consists of a big mark on her face and a lazy accent. Supposedly introduced to feel like a menacing, looming ghost that is trudging the inmate towards self-destruction, she instead feels like a sadistic caricature.

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Fjellman gives her character zero-depth (sans a pretty droopy sequence where she describes why she hates prisoners) and chewing gum to make her feel like a force to reckon with. Moreover, Fjellman is more eager to constantly coarse you into the madness that Harlow descends into. He uses tricky camera movements and visuals that can be found in generic horror films to bring you into the state of what it is like to be put in a prison cell.

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He isn’t particularly interested in the ripe themes of police brutality and judicial injustice mostly implicated upon people of color. This only made me feel that he didn’t want to dive into all of these aspects so that he doesn’t come off as taking missteps or showing his actual political stance. While some of his sound work and cinematography choices work, the film falls flat on almost all other grounds.

“Caged” works only occasionally. If it did aim a little higher and tried to dive into the psychological impact of confinement on an individual without succumbing to theatrics and cliched narrative elements, it would have stayed with me longer than it actually did.



Caged (2021) Links – IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes

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