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Any comment on the total commitment of Tim Roth‘s performance as a palliative care worker in Chronic seems inadequate to describe the intense degree to which the actor loses himself in the punishing life of a man whose dedication to his job stems directly from the scars of personal devastation. To describe this first English-language feature from Michel Franco as bleak is a similar understatement. While it’s tough to figure what audience exists beyond festivals for this uncompromising study in grief, pain, terminal care and dying, admiration for the Mexican writer-director’s formal rigor in the service of hard-hitting material is a given.
Roth was president of the Un Certain Regard jury in 2012, when Franco’s After Lucia, a no-less-unflinching account of adolescent isolation and bullying, won the top prize. This new film, which elevates the director to the main competition, continues in the same stylistic vein as Franco’s previous work, which is all about clear-eyed observational detachment. No non-diegetic music is used and camera movement is minimal throughout, with the exception of a concluding sequence that ends the film with a stunning visceral blow.
Given the subject matter, comparisons may surface to the work of Michael Haneke, particularly Amour. But Franco’s stripped-to-the-bone realism is far more austere, with the action witnessed from behind doorways, over the characters’ shoulders or in straight-on cold stares in cinematographer Yves Cape‘s static shots. Set in leafy, sun-drenched Los Angeles suburbs that seem almost an affront to the intimate suffering being portrayed, this is a film that establishes its unsettling grip from the outset and never loosens it.
David (Roth) is shown at work primarily with three consecutive patients. The first is Sarah (Rachel Pickup), an emaciated, now nonverbal woman in the final stages of her illness. Franco shows us David bathing her and preparing meals, engaging her in quiet, one-sided conversation, and gently intervening when a family visit has become too taxing for her. With the same unemotional sense of purpose combined with respect and physical tenderness, he dismisses the night nurse on duty when Sarah dies and sponges down her body, putting her in a clean nightgown before handing her over to relatives. His attendance at her funeral attracts questions from Sarah’s niece, but although he clearly feels the loss, David declines to discuss his patient.
Instead, in a scene both disturbing and grimly humorous, he gets talking in a bar with a young couple celebrating their engagement. When they ask if he’s married, he responds with the conversation killer that his wife of 21 years, Sarah, died of AIDS. A similar scene occurs after he starts working with another patient, John (Michael Cristofer), an architect who has suffered a debilitating stroke. David goes to a bookstore, and while making small talk with the off-camera sales clerk, he appropriates John’s professional history as his own.
Franco’s script and Roth’s ineffably restrained performance show great skill in blurring David’s boundaries between morbid fixation and selfless immersion in his work, providing comfort that immediate family often cannot.
That duality becomes even more fascinating in his interactions with John, whose irascibility toward his hovering family members yields mordant humor in stage veteran Cristofer’s wonderful work. But David’s closeness to John contributes to the family feeling excluded, or perhaps guilty, and his willingness to indulge the frisky patient with some innocent diversion prompts them to take legal action.
Franco is less interested in this development as a hindrance to David continuing to operate in the healthcare profession than he is in providing psychological insight into the walled-off character. Details of his former marriage to Laura (Nailea Norvind) are revealed in oblique fragments, as David re-establishes contact with their college-age daughter Nadia (Sarah Sutherland), and the tragic circumstances that broke up the family also come slowly to light.
There are predictable aspects in the way that history is echoed in David’s relationship with cancer patient Martha. But as played by the remarkable Robin Bartlett, giving a searing performance of furious dignity, those scenes are riveting. The brittle woman’s descent — from curt, strictly-business distance as David begins accompanying her to chemo to indignant need as her reactions to the treatment worsen — is the film’s most harrowing chapter, moving despite being handled without an ounce of sentiment.
The cast throughout is unimpeachable in its honesty and absence of vanity, nobody more so than Roth, whose brooding, serious side arguably hasn’t been this compelling since James Gray‘s impressive 1994 debut, Little Odessa. On the surface David remains largely impassive, aside from one beautiful scene with Nadia, but the actor shows ample evidence of both his raw pain and his compassion.
The abrupt violence of the ending may leave some questioning whether Franco is passing judgment or merely commenting with characteristic gravity on the grotesque randomness of human existence. Some may dismiss the film as too dour and unrelenting, or invasive in its access to the most private stage of life — in which the personal privacy of the patient so often has been cruelly surrendered. But while Chronic is a depressing sit, it’s a sobering window into the self-sacrifice and psychological strain of the caregiver, as well as a provocative contribution to the ongoing debate about humane assisted suicide.
Cast: Tim Roth, Sarah Sutherland, Robin Bartlett, Michael Cristofer, Nailea Norvind, Rachel Pickup, Sarah Sutherland, David Dastmalchian, Christopher McCann, Bitsie Tulloch, Brenda Wehle
Production companies: Lucia Films, Videocine, Stromboli Films, Vamonos Films
Director-screenwriter: Michel Franco
Producers: Gabriel Ripstein, Michel Franco, Moises Zonana, Gina Kwon
Executive producers: Emilio Azcarraga Jean, Bernardo Gomez, Tim Roth, Fernando Perez Gavilan
Director of photography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Matthew Luem
Costume designer: Diaz
Editors: Michel Franco, Julio C. Perez IV
Casting directors: Matthew Lessall, Susan Shopmaker
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 93 minutes.
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