In Michel Franco’s Chronic Tim Roth gives a career- best performance as David, a nurse who cares for people diagnosed with terminal illnesses. David is committed to his patients’ every need and treats them with a compassion and dedication which appears selfless, but also suspicious in its overzealousness.
He forms an intimate bond with a patient called John (a cantankerous stroke victim), almost immediately and comforts him in ways an old friend might. The old man’s family are puzzled by David’s level of commitment when he takes on back-to-back shifts in order to be by John’s side, and they become increasingly marginalised. David also engages in a benign form of identity theft; he visits a house for which John was the architect, claiming to be the man’s brother and also pretends to be John while in a bookshop enquiring about books on architecture. Behavioural quirks such as these, not to mention his apparent reluctance to discuss matters with his patients’ families, suggest that there’s more to David than merely a saintly commitment to his work.
As the film progresses, we’re drip-fed clues about David’s past which go some way to explain his work ethic and actions, and although much of this is open to interpretation it becomes apparent that there’s a redemptive aspect at work. A recurring motif of the film is a scene in which David appears to be Facebook-stalking a girl by the name of Nadia. Her identity and relationship to him - if any - is at first enigmatic, but gradually revealed as she becomes a fleshed-out character as well as merely a face on his laptop screen.
The pace of the film is slow - occasionally bordering on the glacial - but the performances are universally strong and there’s enough mystery (at least in the first half of the film) to keep proceedings intriguing. There’s a palpable Michael Haneke influence here, not least in the long (and mostly statically shot) scenes and lack of music, but also in the unsentimental, frank manner in which Franco depicts people at their most vulnerable; both physically and emotionally. Adding to this the fact that the film opens with a very long, static point-of-view shot of someone’s house - much like the introduction to Haneke’s Hidden - the comparison is almost unavoidable.
The film ends with an extremely abrupt denouement which seems designed more to shock than to conclude the narrative, which is a shame. It’s almost as if Franco simply didn’t know how to wrap up the story and so opted to end with a visceral gut-punch, instead of something more dramatically satisfying. When the preceding 90 minutes are so rigorously structured, it seems something of a cop-out. That said, Chronic is an engrossing watch despite its slow pace and claustrophobic atmosphere. Roth truly immerses himself in a very complex role, and his naturalistic performance (especially when viewed alongside his cartoonish villain in The Hateful Eight), reminds us of what a versatile and enormously talented actor he is.
Chronic is a keenly observed character study and examination of moral guilt, elevated by a superb turn by Tim Roth.