Director: Michel Franco
Major Players: Tim Roth, Michael Cristofer, Robin Bartlett
Out Of Five: 3.5
As the dust settles after the glitz of the BAFTAs and the hoopla that went with Deadpool and Zoolander 2, there’s a decidedly low key tone to some of this week’s new releases. Sombre, even, when you consider they include Freeheld and the smaller, but not unrelated, Chronic.
It follows home care nurse, David (Tim Roth) as he looks after some of his terminally ill patients. A frail young woman who is wasting away before our eyes. Architect John (Michael Cristofer) who, after a stroke, has lost the use of one side of his body, yet mentally stays as sharp as a razor. Martha (Robin Bartlett), who has gone through two cycles of chemo for her cancer and has been recommended a third. And a wheelchair bound teenager with multiple physical and mental problems. It’s a demanding line of work and it’s one that’s taken a toll on his personal life.
David is dedicated to his work, a compassionate and effective carer, always knowing when to fade into the background, when something will hurt his patient, how to make them more comfortable. But such personal care results in close, near intimate relationships, posing the question about the line between good care and inappropriate behaviour. And in David’s case, it’s a very fine line because, in one way or another, his patients each spill over into his personal life yet, ironically, when he is actually accused of misconduct, he’s completely innocent.
That dividing line is stretched even further when one patient asks him to help them die. He refuses. In California, where the story takes place, only physician assisted suicide is legal and David is a nurse. But he eventually has second thoughts and crosses the line. So much trust is placed in him that his explanation of the death is never questioned. Curiously, though, once a patient dies, that’s the end of his involvement and he simply moves on to the next one without a second thought.
Director Michel Franco loves the combination of a static camera and lingering shots, so the film is peppered with them and, indeed, starts with such a sequence. It immediately captures our interest and raises our suspicions as well, because David is watching a young woman leave her house and then tails her in his car. It’s not the only scene like that and, given that the film has no soundtrack whatsoever, there are times when it is not just silent but has a sense of cool detachment.
Coming after Selma and The Hateful Eight, this is a change of pace for Roth, an unassuming film but one in which he gives a beautifully judged performance, full of complexity and compassion. Despite our reservations about his character, his skills as a nurse are indisputable, helping people when they’re at their most vulnerable and their dignity is in tatters. We see him bathing them, cleaning up their vomit, even helping them when they’ve soiled themselves. But it also has to be said that the actors portraying his patients are equally impressive, especially Michael Cristofer as the stroke victim. His physical decline and his difficulty speaking are wholly convincing, as is his anger at his illness and the way he takes it out on his family.
Yet, despite the excellent acting, the film still remains something of an enigma, especially when it comes to David’s character. Both his and the film’s moral dilemmas are never fully resolved either, but that’s less of an issue. Chronic takes us into another world, one that we’d rather not think about, and presents it to us in a thought-provoking and thankfully unsentimental way.
Chronic is released in cinemas and online on Friday, 19 February and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 18 February.