There’s a strong dose of physician heal thyself in Chronic, Michel Franco’s third feature. Tim Roth’s nurse may be supremely efficient when dealing with terminally ill patients, but he fails utterly to exist outside his work. Unwilling to face past trauma, he instead sinks himself into the lives of those he cares for in this bleak drama. Careful and confident, the plight of the seriously ill is handled with stark authenticity. It’s the main character who doesn’t quite fit the piece, proving so difficult to handle it eventually collapses into a horribly rushed ending.
Tim Roth is David, a dedicated carer with an empty personal life. In the company of the sick, he’s attentive, considerate and relaxed. When he steps out the door at the end of the day, he lapses into an awkwardly introverted loner, a man for whom jogging and driving appear to account for the majority of his time. It becomes painfully obvious that he needs his patients every bit as much as they need him. Without ever crossing the line, he becomes unhealthily close. When one dies, he hits a bar telling people she was his wife. When he begins caring for elderly architect John (Michael Cristofer), he visits one of his houses and tell the owner he’s John’s brother.
Franco directs with meticulous honesty. Often he simply places the camera for the duration of a partially framed scene, allowing all the action to play out. A considerable amount of time is spent watching David cleaning patients, re-arranging bedding, feeding them and conducting basic exercises. Outside, it usually just follows him about as he lives his empty life.
Narrative at the start is non-existent. It’s almost a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Gently, Franco introduces a hint of understanding. Little aspersions are cast about David’s past. He keeps following one young woman (Sarah Sutherland) on Facebook, eventually plucking up the courage to face her. Oddly, David seems most complete when incomplete. Roth’s almost blank-faced expression keeps his secrets enigmatically close. As they get revealed via interaction with relatives, the naturalistic style Franco nurtures starts to buckle.
Chronic suffers when it attempts to blend acute character observations and stark footage of life for the terminally ill with a more conventional mystery. Little sub-plots are dropped in unnecessarily, particularly one involving a sexual harassment suit that acts to shift David around and demonstrate his growing dependency. Unsurprisingly, this confused approach co-exists uncomfortably, forcing poor compromises. Observational scenes start to drag, dramatic ones lack weight. The worst example is a ridiculously sudden ending that reeks of laziness. It’s the complete opposite of everything that’s gone before.
Franco has made half a good film, riffing off terrific work from Roth. Almost losing his nerve along the way, he then runs his own ship unnecessarily onto the rocks, unable to get back out to sea again.
Director: Michel Franco
Writer: Michel Franco
Stars: Tim Roth, Bitsie Tulloch, Claire van der Boom