Caged takes aims at the psychological impact of solitary confinement on prison inmates. The pre-credits card notes there are hundreds of thousands of inmates in the United States currently held in solitary. Writer-director Aaron Fjellman clearly cares deeply, and his star, Edi Gathegi, gives a performance that would’ve sizzled even if he had nobody else off whom to play. Unfortunately, Gathegi does, and it’s the parts of Caged that take us out of his character’s prison that keep the film from greatness.
Dr. Harlow Reid (Gathegi) is a man wrongfully imprisoned for the death of his wife, Amber (Angela Sarafyan). He’s sentenced to solitary confinement due to an incident in the prison yard. This comes right on the verge of filing his appeal and right as he’s just lost his representation because his attorneys see him as a lost cause. Reid won’t stop professing his innocence to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately, the only person around solitary is Officer Sacks (Melora Hardin), a cruel and vicious woman who takes pleasure in breaking her inmates to garner confessions. Reid insists he’s innocent, so Sacks makes it her mission to make the truth what she wants it to be.
There are endless scenes of brutal torture and psychological deterioration as Reid alternates between his cell and Sacks’ orchestrations. His memories of Amber reveal the events of the day of her death: an afternoon on their boat, some sangria, a stray text from Amber’s mom referencing an affair the two had put behind them … a fall … and blood. A lot of blood. Did Reid kill her? Was it an accident? Soon Reid barely knows the difference, although there is a resolution for the audience.
When it’s showing the torture, most of Caged actually works. Gathegi is the key. We feel for him. But as his potential culpability becomes clear, the movie introduces a level of cognitive dissonance that it flees from in its last moments. This is a film about the treatment of prisoners. Making Reid innocent to up his reliability and ease empathy from the audience is a good storytelling choice but waters down the fact that many men are tortured regularly in prison and don’t deserve it, regardless of what crimes they may have committed to wind up there.
I can’t fault Caged for telling a more interesting story by making Reid’s story somewhat softer, but the commitment to his bleak existence in the cell made me hope it was going to go all the way with its political messaging. This is a good, engaging thriller with a hard edge and a strong leading performance. It just doesn’t quite go the distance.