Director: Michel Franco
Cast: Tim Roth, Bitsie Tulloch and David Dastmalchian
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Date: February 19th
Reverse chronology in cinema challenges the perceptions, certainties and assumptions of a viewer. It motivates us to choose a protagonist, or antagonist based purely on a decontextualized dramatic scenario. Best known as a device used to question the morality of revenge and frontier justice, it effectively pushes each viewer into becoming a juror in Twelve Angry Men, wherein we pass judgement without consideration for the evidence, or the bigger picture. Ingeniously deceptive when thrown at the unsuspecting viewer, the aim is to then slowly reveal, during the rewind, how misconstrued our opinions may have been.
Unfortunately however, this means of structuring a plot is used enough times now for most people to pause before they decide upon which character to identify with. Therefore, the next step in exploring the backwards story is to deconstruct, and conceal it to certain extents. When the old model is popularized, in order to reset the trap effectively, it has to upgrade, and lose certain surface features, whilst also insuring that the vital elements of deceit and revelation remain intact.
This is perhaps why Michel Franco’s third feature film, Chronic, is such an impressive piece of work. He manages to reshape the device by incorporating it into a film ordered chronologically. Told through a variety of extended scenes with no information provided bar that which is literally put in front of us, we are coaxed into writing our own stories, before slowly, a more complicated, less dramatic truth is drip fed into the mix.
From the opening shot of one car, occupied by a middle age man known as David (Tim Roth), as he trails a second car, driven by a teenage girl named Nadia Wilson (Sarah Sutherland), we are tricked into deciding that this is a potential thriller about stalking. One deduces, from what they can see that David is a sick person. He tracks Nadia’s movement, studies her every Facebook photo. It is difficult to believe that he could be anything other than a pervert. Yet, as the scene switches to the stark image of him sponge-bathing a disturbingly frail woman, tending to her every need, one begins to believe he might be a caring husband, whose depressing home life has rendered him a creepy deviant.
When we soon discover he is in fact an in-house nurse, whose current patient is a victim of AIDS, what becomes apparent is that nothing onscreen is as it appears. There is always a secret lurking behind each corner, lessening, not heightening the sinister aspects of David’s behaviour. Here, we must make a deliberate effort to consider every possible context, and as we become patient, the film shows us how our previous impatience can affect a person, as these prejudices become a device in the story itself.
It is rare when a film strives to function without protagonists and antagonists, victims and predators. Equally, it is difficult for audiences to accept that such simplicity is unnecessary in driving a story forward. We paint a sinister picture of a person and fight to create villains, because it is in our nature. Yet in reality, the concept of good versus evil is merely that: a concept, not a truth.
This is not to say that David is a good person, rather he is a reflection of the complicated, imperfect person, otherwise known as every human being in existence. Everybody in his life is preoccupied with projecting their own ideals onto other people, while his only crime is in not looking at anybody as a black and white entity. When others see a person with a disability, or terminal illness, they see a being to offload their pity on. They see a person who should be addressed in a child-like way. Yet, what David finds are people, regular people; people who love porn, who have mean streaks, and who do not want their life to be defined by a victim narrative.
However, this is not exactly a sentimental affair. For all of the inspirational ideas contained within, Chronic is an immensely upsetting piece of work, haunting almost in how it depicts neglect, and isolation. Tackling all of the themes that nobody in their right mind would explore, from euthanasia to sexual crimes, by way of ageism and mortality, a lot is being asked of the audience emotionally, and their patience will not be rewarded with happiness on the other side. As bleak and as harrowing as a Steve McQueen film, and as cynical as an Osamu Dazai novel, this is not a film, which can be recommended to anybody. It is too distressing at times to be treated as a casual affair.
In saying that, it is also vital to note that this is also not provocation for its own sake, nor are Franco’s brutally frank depiction of illness exploitative. He is drawing his ideas from direct experience. This is a genuine work of heart, and that can be seen even if one does not know about his motivations for writing the script. If there is anything to take as a positive at the end of all this, then it is the fact that Franco has given us an authentic work about actual emotions, actual people. He is an unsettling director, but more importantly, an honest one.