Upbeat, this is not.
Chronic stars Tim Roth as David, a carer for patients with conditions that substantially limit their mobility and independence – late stage AIDS patients, stroke victims, that sort of thing. So far, so cheery.
Things are further complicated by David’s at times unhealthy relationships with those patients. He seems to almost relish their dependence on him, encouraging them to adopt him more and more completely into their lives. Stranger still, the pull goes the other way too, as he absorbs elements of their own lives, such as their careers, and claims them as his own, or tells strangers that his patients are in fact his family members.
All of this is revealed slowly, cautiously, interrupted by David’s own efforts to rekindle his relationship with his college-age daughter and recover from long ago trauma, details of which are gradually drip fed to the audience.
Writer-director Michel Franco’s script gives little away, leaving the viewer to do much of the heavy lifting in piecing the narrative together. The stilted, episodic structure frustrates efforts to find clean story and characters arcs running through the film, instead leaving a muddle of loose ends left dangling by the finale – perhaps not by accident.
Wide, empty shots emphasise the frailty and immobility of David’s patients, while the muted palate, dominated throughout by shades of white, creates a cold, clinical atmosphere. There’s a pointed lethargy to the film, with slow, cautious movements from both sick and healthy characters alike, mimicked by static camera work and slow edits, shots left to linger uncomfortably long – not least when David is left to painstakingly clean his patients by hand.
In contrast to this lethargy throughout, Franco dots in bursts of movement and noise as David goes running, either on a treadmill in a big-box gym or round the neighbourhood. The rush of colour and thud of pounding footsteps serves as a shock, a reminder of everything that David can do but his patients can’t, and everything that he seems to give up by choosing to devote his days to them.
Roth is typically excellent, his shuffling walk and soft eyes capturing David’s curiously insistent brand of devotion to his patients, a consistent kindness that somehow still feels more selfish than anything else. He betrays no frustration, only a weariness matched by quiet obsession, elevated just enough to convey a convincing sense of threat in a few moments that play with audience expectations of the character.
Watching Chronic is rarely easy. Setting aside the obviously challenging subject matter, Franco’s film is content to set its own pace and progress on its own terms, confounding both traditional structure and storytelling techniques. The inattentive viewer will no doubt find themselves utterly flummoxed at points, the attentive one only slightly less so. The ending does little to draw the film’s various strands together, and the abrupt finish, an explosion of noise and colour in a film mostly absent of both (there’s not even a score), is sure to be divisive.
Not upbeat then, and not entirely satisfying either. As a stark, frank examination of end-of-life care, free of cloying sentiment or melodrama, the film is an undeniable success. As a slow-burn psychological examination of the sort of man who would devote himself to such care, the results are more mixed, despite the best efforts of Tim Roth.
Words by Dominic Preston