Michel Franco’s Chronic serves its first indelible image almost immediately. A naked, skeletal women sits in a shower chair, head listlessly hanging to one side, limbs atrophied and bones visible through papery skin: she looks like the corpses you see in pictures of Nazi death camps. Franco’s camera hovers just outside the bathroom door, as if he (and by extension us) are peeping through, scared to properly approach.
Next to her is her nurse, David (Tim Roth). He gently sponges her clean from head to toe, cleaning her with kindness and professionalism. Even so, as his hand reaches between her spread legs, we feel a tingle of unease. This feeling lurks at the pit of your stomach throughout Chronic, which probes what it means to “care.”
Episodic in structure, we follow Roth’s nurse as he cares for three clients, the story generally moving on when they die. He specializes in patients that are close to the end; two suffer from terminal illnesses and one is recovering from a stroke. On the surface David is a fantastic nurse, able to see beyond his patient’s ailments and trying to understand the people beneath. For example, when caring for an architect, he goes shopping for books so as to understand him and even visits a house he’s designed.
All very saintly, but there’s something off about David. Outside of his job he appears to have no life; spending his free time aimlessly driving around, blank-facedly thumping out miles on a treadmill or browsing the Facebook profile of a mysterious young girl. Similarly, he fantasizes about having a genuine relationship with his patients, describing himself to strangers as their husband or brother. Gradually, the film doles out nuggets of information that allow us to piece together just what on earth is going on in his Sphinx-like dome.
Chronic is bleak as hell, probably inescapably so given how much time we spend with the terminally ill. Franco accentuates that by shooting with languid clarity, setting up a static camera and letting long dialogue scenes play out uninterrupted. Similarly, there’s no use of non-diegetic sound – the film is sprinkled by long periods of silence – soundtracked only by footsteps, mumbled sentences and rumbling car engines.
This lets you zero in on David, much of the viewing experience spent trying to figure out what the hell his deal is. Pulpy clichés are ditched almost instantly – he doesn’t appear to get an iota of sexual gratification from this, he doesn’t want money and certainly isn’t plotting to kill them to satisfy some psychotic itch. He’s a paradox, tangibly broken yet addicted to caring for people.
It makes us uncomfortable, and that’s the point: Chronic exposes things we’d prefer not to dwell on. Firstly, being in a position where we require 24/7 assistance is terrifying – David’s all-encompassing kindness is ultimately a symbol for total loss of independence. Secondly, imagining ourselves giving an equivalent duty of care to our loved ones (the family members of his patients are look noticeably guilty in his presence). Thirdly, there’s a wider critique of a society that prefers emotional detachment in medicine, which David’s sincere passion for caring is completely out of step with.
All this is reflected in a marvellous central performance. Tim Roth, all too often relegated to supporting roles and genre flicks, is clearly relishing the opportunity to play a fully-realized central character. He successfully draws out the powerful currents raging underneath David’s tranquil exterior, gradually exposing the core of the character scene by scene as the story develops. At one point his shell cracks and for a brief moment we glimpse the raw pain and guilt that fuels him – it’s understated, quiet and calm, but no less powerful for it.
Roth’s solid performance and Franco’s confident direction dovetail neatly into a film that knows what it wants to communicate and how to achieve it. Unfortunately, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth with an eyebrow-raisingly abrupt ending that literally comes out of nowhere. It’s as if having hit all their dramatic targets, the film is at a loss on how to leave these characters, shrugging and ending on a clichéd jump-scare.
That Chronic stumbles at the very last moment is unfortunate: up to that point it’s about as sure-footed a drama as you’d hope to find. While not exactly an enjoyable 90 minutes, it successfully identifies an uncomfortable contradiction in our society. To be (or be seen to be) caring is all but required – to actually live that is a different story altogether.
Chronic is a bleak but rewarding drama. Unfortunately, though, it stumbles in the final reel.