There was one moment whilst watching this film when I just found myself staring – unable to look away – at an expressionless face sat in a car, the kind of way you do when someone or something piques your interest to such a degree that you just cannot help yourself; second-guessing their every thought.
Such levels of intrigue and curiosity are commonplace in director Michel Franco’s at times rather heavy-going Chronic.
Absent is any form of soundtrack and incredibly rare are the film’s fleeting moments of levity, but for the film-goer that’s prepared to put in the dedication and emotionally invest in it, the rewards are huge.
Tim Roth plays freelance palliative care worker, David.
His is a curious existence. A man of few words and of limited expression, he reveals very little about himself to others and his daily life can best be described as functional.
The film frequently cuts to David running – going through the motions – initially jogging on a treadmill, and in later scenes plodding along the pavements of suburban Los Angeles. Just running. But running for fitness? Running to escape? Running to forget?
The truth of David’s story will unfold, but it’s clear that the memory and buried emotional pain of having to facilitate the death of his terminally ill son many years before, seems to have shaped the withdrawn shell of a man that he’s become and the sort of monochrome existence that he now goes through. Crucially, it appears that it’s also been the catalyst for his determined yet under-stated desire to help others similarly afflicted – sometimes to the point of quiet compulsion.
Curiously, he lives his own life vicariously through the professions and achievements of his patients, either fabricating back stories to somehow implement their lives into his own personal history, or actually adopting his interpretation of their personas, in public.
Working through a care agency, David is assigned patients as and when he has concluded his duties where last assigned, and be it a late stages AIDS casualty or a bitter stroke victim struggling to come to terms with their sudden disability, David’s calm but focused dedication is unwavering; even when fate conspires threatening to take away from him the one solid constant and remaining raison d’être of his life; his work…
Never visibly distraught or exasperated, Tim Roth it has to be said is superb with his stripped back depiction of this mysterious care worker. So natural is his performance within the film’s minimal backdrop, it’s easy at times to forget that you’re even watching a film at all, particularly with director Franco’s propensity towards long, drawn-out takes, and infrequent edits or cutaways – unflinching in the face of potentially awkward and emotional subject matter.
Chronic is every bit a multi-layered film that sucks you into David’s world, inducing a very genuine empathy in the process. It’s also a film of minimal dialogue. Indeed the whole thing feels at times rather unscripted, even improvised. Perhaps most notably of all though is that it’s a film of narrative ambiguity, and very much left open to personal interpretation as it subtly transitions from one potential meaning to another. What appears on the surface to be a story of melancholy, loneliness and frustration is at the same time a story with potentially far more sinister overtones, if you choose to see them that is.
It won’t be to everyone’s taste and its slow, considered pace and fairly weighty subject matter that unrepentantly refuses to pander towards any need for light relief, will alienate a fair few, but I really have to implore you to stick with it.