D: Michel Franco / 92m
Cast: Tim Roth, Robin Bartlett, Michael Cristofer, Sarah Sutherland, Rachel Pickup, Angela Bullock, Nailea Norvind, David Dastmalchian, Maribeth Monroe
David (Roth) is a male nurse who provides palliative care for terminally ill or seriously disabled people living in their own homes. When his latest patient, Sarah (Pickup), dies, her family are surprised to see him at the funeral, and when Sarah’s neice (Monroe) tries to ask David some questions about Sarah’s final weeks, he is uncooperative and avoids talking to her. At home, he checks the social media page of a young woman named Nadia (Sutherland), focusing on the pictures she’s posted.
Later, David is given another patient to look after, an architect called John (Cristofer), who’s had a stroke. As John recovers, he and David become friends of sorts, even to the point where David turns a blind eye to John watching porn on his laptop. But when one of John’s family walks in on David giving him a bed bath, the situation is misread, and David finds himself being told by his boss that he can’t continue as John’s carer – or indeed anyone’s – because he’s about to be sued for sexual misconduct. While he waits for another job to come up, David tracks down the young woman from the social media page, who it turns out is his daughter.
They haven’t seen each other in a while due to a family tragedy that David blames himself for, and which caused him to have a breakdown. As he gets to know Nadia again, and begins to mend his relationship with her mother, Laura (Norvind), David is offered a job looking after a woman called Marta (Bartlett) who has cancer. All is going well until one day she asks David to help her commit suicide…
A measured, sometimes agonisingly slow drama about one man’s attempt to redeem himself by caring for others, Chronic is always going to be a tough sell for potential viewers, mostly because of the subject matter, and partly because it’s paced so deliberately and so precisely. It’s like a chamber piece made for the big screen, with a restrained, honest performance from Roth that is so internalised it makes David seem removed from everything – and everyone – around him. And while he does keep his distance (except when it comes to his patients), the legacy of that tragedy has left very deep and lasting scars that he can deal with only by focusing his energies on people he can help; he’s trying to make amends in the only way he knows how.
It’s a fairly straightforward tale made up of long static shots where the action is kept firmly within the boundaries of the frame, and where David’s attempts to reconnect with his daughter offer the only evidence that he’s not entirely subsumed by the lives of his patients (when he learns John is an architect he does his homework on the matter, even going so far as to visit one of the houses John built). This way of identifying with his patients could have been presented as creepy or unhealthy, but it’s yet another way that David is trying to find a place for himself in the world he’s been absent from.
Franco directs his own script with a clear idea of what he wants to achieve, but makes the mistake of distancing not only David from others, but the audience from David, leaving the viewer to decide for themselves if David’s plight is affecting enough for them to bother. And there’s a final scene that’s likely to alienate viewers who’ve made it that far. With the decision to skip having a musical score or songs to act as emotional cues for the audience, the movie relies on its talented cast to highlight the various ambiguities of each character’s relationship with David, while its ideas of what it’s like to care about others when it’s difficult to care about oneself, are handled with care and sensitivity.
Rating: 8/10 – not for all tastes, not least because of Franco’s slow-burn, reflective approach to the narrative, Chronic is a showcase for Roth’s acting abilities, and the ways in which personal pain creates barriers between people; too plainly rendered for many, it’s a movie that is uncompromising in terms of the narrative, but rewards upon closer inspection.