Aaron Fjellman directs and co-writes, with James Doc Mason, the prison set thriller Caged. Dr. Harlow Reid (Edi Gathegi) is imprisoned for the murder of his wife, Amber (Angela Sarafyan). Of course, the psychologist maintains his innocence, even uncovering new evidence that was not presented at his trial… or did he?
See, Harlow (for unclear reasons) is in solitary, being screwed with by the sadistic Officer Sacks (Melora Hardin) and slowly losing his mind. So, did the doctor uncover something that would exonerate him, or is the loneliness getting to him? For that matter, is he truly innocent, or is his mind saving itself from an unthinkable, heinous act he did commit?
Fjellman and Mason’s screenplay does an excellent job of establishing the main character’s mindset and personality. Harlow remains sympathetic, even when the audience questions if he is or isn’t a murderer. Helping this along is Gathegi, who is brilliant. The actor is calm and inviting, empathetic, relatable, scary, threatening, and absolutely lost all at once. It is a role that requires a lot from him, and Gathegi is more than up the task. Caged is worth the price of admission for his performance alone.
Luckily, he has help. For starters, his co-stars are also quite good. Hardin is given the chance to play against type and proves a lot of fun to hate. She’s cruel and vicious and sells every minute of it. Sarafyan sells Amber’s defiant nature in her brief role during flashbacks, and she shares excellent chemistry with Gathegi. Also in a small part is Tony Amendola as the warden, who is more caring than his guards. He brings a warmth that one does not realize is missing until the character actor is on screen.
“…Harlow is in solitary, being screwed with by the sadistic Officer Sacks…”
Plus, Fjellman is a master visual stylist. While never going too over the top, Caged is filled with surreal imagery that directly places the audience into Harlow’s mental state. Whether he believes his cell is underwater and seeing fish swim by or an imagined steak dinner, the hallucinations are well-filmed and help the story along. So, while it is a bit flashy, there is a real purpose there.
But, Caged is not quite a slam dunk. The issues all lie within the script not fleshing things out enough. The movie begins with Harlow already in prison, having been found guilty of murder. But how he winds up in solitary is never discussed, brought up, or mentioned. So, given how soft-spoken he is and how good he is with the other prisoners, it is very hard to fathom how/ why he’s there. This oversight looms over the entire story, as no matter how engaging it might be, it never quite makes total sense.
And then there’s Officer Sacks. I’m moving Hardin into a little, safe bubble and restating that she’s great, creepy, and genuinely threatening. But the screenplay makes her just a horrendously, almost cartoony, monster of violence and barbarism. At the risk of sounding like I want an In Hell remake, some sort of characterization and arc (and resolution, but no spoilers) would go a long way to making Caged a full view of the incarceration system, not just a narrow view of this one person in this particular prison.
Caged is well directed, with many striking visuals that help put one in its main character’s headspace. The performances all the way around are excellent, with a special shout-out to Gathegi nimbly shouldering much of the picture’s emotional burden. But, the screenplay does not flesh out the supporting characters enough for them to be as three-dimensional as the protagonist. Still, for its searing look at mental deterioration in solitary confinement and ingrained racism in the prison system, Caged is an absolute must-watch, minor flaws and all.
"…it is a role that requires a lot from him, and Gathegi is more than up the task."