It is always interesting to observe human behaviors from movies. “Chronic”, which received the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, engaged me because of its calm observation of curious human behaviors, but I was also bothered by how it eventually meandered and then suddenly struck me with something quite jarring around its final minute. I admit that I was utterly jolted by that, but, as I thought more about it during last several days, I conclude that it does not work, and that is a shame considering the fine direction and commendable performances of the film.
The movie revolves around the daily work of a caregiver named David (Tim Roth). His latest client is a dying woman getting sicker day by day, and we see how much he puts himself into his work as a well-experienced professional. He is the one who helps Sarah (Rachel Pickup) whenever she needs to get up from her bed or couch. He is the one who washes her in the bathroom. He is the one who remains besides her when her visitors leave as soon as possible. And he is the one who willingly takes care of her dead body when nobody wants to do that for an understandable reason.
After that point, we observe something odd from David. He attends Sarah’s funeral, and he is approached by Sarah’s niece who wants to hear more about Sarah from him, but he flatly rejects her approach as if his relationship with Sarah had been merely professional. However, he looks sad and depressed when he is at a bar during the following scene, and he tells a young couple sitting next to him that he lost his wife. Does he have some delusional problem? Or is he just a professional who devoted his heart and soul to his client too much?
As he moves onto his next client, we begin to see the pattern. John (Michael Cristofer) is a middle-aged architect who has been bedridden since his stroke, and David quickly becomes his invaluable companion as immersing himself into John’s life. He becomes more knowledgeable about architecture for being someone with whom John can talk casually, and he also has no problem with providing something to satisfy John’s naughty need.
Again, he lies about himself to strangers who do not know him. When he goes to a bookstore for buying architecture books, he says he is an architect. When he visits a house designed by John a long time ago, he introduces himself as John’s brother to its owner, who kindly allows David to look around the house and take a photograph for John.
And then there is another odd thing about David as shown from the opening scene. When he is not busy, he often spends his free time on watching a young girl from the distance. Sometimes he follows after her without being noticed. He also checks her Facebook page and rummages photographs posted by her. As watching David focusing on her, we cannot help but wonder whether he has any questionable intention.
Anyway, he later finds himself getting into a trouble as keeping himself a little too close to John. He is consequently switched to the other client with less wage, and he does not complain much because there is nothing he can do about that. His new client Martha (Robin Bartlett) is a cancer patient struggling with her chemotherapy sessions, and David soon becomes close to her as he did with his former clients, but then Martha, who knows about his past, requests him to do something for her.
How David comes to open himself a bit to the past he has distanced himself from for years is the weakest part of the movie. While it begins to lose the subtle tension generated by his intriguing ambiguity, the movie does not seem to know what to do next once his cover is gone, and that is why the aforementioned finale feels contrived rather than organic. Sure, life can ambush us in such ways like that, but all I could see from that moment was more or less than a cheap final touch.
The performances in the movie are solid enough to cover this serious narrative flaw to some degrees, if not entirely. Tim Roth, who may be on another rising phase of his career now with this film and “The Hateful Eight” (2015), gives a performance delicately measured in nuances and gestures, and three supporting performers playing David’s clients embody their respective characters without any artificiality of those disease of the week movies. Rachel Pickup looks believable in her frail appearance, and you may be surprised to know that Michael Cristofer actually has a long, distinguished acting career. Robin Bartlett deftly handles her certain scene with Roth, and I was amused to learn later that this veteran actress was that funny high school French teacher in goofy spy comedy action flick “If Looks Could Kill” (1991).
It is evident that the director/writer Michel Franco, who received the Un Certain Regard award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for his previous film “After Lucia” (2012), is a competent filmmaker who knows how to establish story and character to attract our attention, but “Chronic” is not wholly satisfying in its overall execution in spite of several strong points worthwhile to be mentioned. I cannot recommend the movie for now, but he surely gets my attention at least for what he did here with Roth.