David (Tim Roth) is a hospice nurse who displays a deep level of commitment toward his charges, taking exceptionally focused care of them as their bodies slowly and agonizingly falter. There’s a quiet professionalism to how David goes about his work. So devout he is to his calling that he will willingly take on extra shifts just to continue his caregiving uninterrupted. He will go so far as to watch pornography at the behest of an elder client who doesn’t want to watch it alone. But David’s seeming devotion also grows peculiar as we glimpse flashes of his personal life. He purloins aspects of his clients’ lives as parts of his own during casual conversations with strangers. He also appears to be stalking a young woman in his spare time, both on Facebook and in his car. Also, he enjoys jogging.
This is the setup for Michel Franco’s Chronic, a miserablist character study that never locates its own pulse. Franco shoots the film as a series of punishingly long takes, completely devoid of music or even much dialogue. When David tends to his clients, their anguish and bodily mishaps are not spared to our prying eyes. We are shown David washing the emaciated form of an AIDS patient, see another vomit, and yet another soil herself as a byproduct of colorectal cancer. Franco intends, clearly, for his film to function as an unblinking look at death and despair. He succeeds, but to what end?
Roth, often a very lively actor, summons a sort of dead-eyed intensity here, but it’s difficult to call his work that illuminating as a character study. We’re mostly left to decide for ourselves who David is and what drives him since the film seems wholly uninterested in defining any part of him. We learn that the girl he’s fixated on is actually his estranged daughter, and it’s suggested that may have once euthanized his ailing son, but none of quite fills him in as a complete person. David mostly feels like a blank slate, never remotely interesting enough to warrant to slavish attention the film lavishes upon him. He seems to waver at a nexus point between being unsettlingly creepy and deeply compassionate, but as portrayed by the film, both shades look mostly the same on him.
Chronic is so spare and inert that it lulls you into a sort of daze. Which all seems to act as something of a setup to the punchline that is the shocking ending. When the film’s final moment arrives, it lands with a brazen jolt, mostly spurred on by how numbingly torpid the film had been up to that point. Honestly, for such a profoundly humorless film, the moment is almost received as funny, like something out of a slapsticky comedy, even though it’s clearly meant to be the culmination of the film’s dreary exploration of death, suffering and hopelessness.
Chronic is a film where nothing much happens to someone you aren’t allowed to know and have no reason to care about. It only aims to depress and unnerve its audience. Best to let it expire to put us out of its misery.
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