The emotional weight of this scene is devastating because there’s literally nowhere for Harlow to go except his cell. “Why do you keep apologizing to me?” he asks Zarubica’s voice, not realizing what writer/director Aaron Fjellman’s restricting camerawork and blocking have already shown us: nobody outside of Harlow’s cell is coming for him.
“Caged” is pulpier, and therefore thinner than its opening scene, especially given how generic Harlow’s ghosts often are. Still, his story is often disturbing in spite of Fjellman and co-writer James ‘Doc’ Mason’s over-reliance on cheesy flashbacks and canned confrontations with Officer Sacks (Melora Hardin), a vicious prison guard. “Caged” is as promising as it is because Fjellman and Mason are mostly committed to making us feel as disoriented and desperate as Harlow.
The film’s focus on Harlow’s subjective experiences is a risk that doesn’t always pay off, especially during the movie’s concluding half hour, but for the most part, “Caged” is thankfully more focused on his hellish living conditions than his personal problems. Watching Harlow struggle to write his appeal—or get a full portion of food, or collect his belongings—is far more compelling than slogging through flashbacks to his final moments with his uncaring wife Amber (Angela Sarafyan), who died in a mysterious yacht-related incident following an argument about her rich parents and a recent affair (she cheated on him, of course).
“Caged” ironically only turns more impersonal once Harlow’s story becomes less about how prison degrades him, and more about what he discovers about himself once he’s almost completely dehumanized. Harlow’s a typical prison movie underdog in that he’s more compelling as a problem-solving cypher than he is as a two-dimensional effigy, defined mostly by the voices in his head—“They don’t know what you’re capable of, but I do,” he tells his reflection—and his weak backstory.
It’s not surprising, then, that there’s not much to Gathegi’s character once he starts thinking about his imprisonment as a reflection of his personal identity. Harlow’s faith, masculinity, and race are all briefly considered, but never long enough to flesh out insinuating dialogue, like when a prisoner in an adjacent cell growls at Harlow: “Hey, black man: you believe in God?”