The applause at the end of the screening for Chronic arrived with a slight delay. Everyone seemed to be taken aback by the sudden, predictable, yet at the same time unexpected, ending. In this evocative film where silence speaks more than words, Mexican director Michel Franco paints a bleak study of man. It is quite straightforward: a nurse tends to his patients then goes on with his banal day-to-day activities. Yet there is more complexity as the story gradually unfolds.
The film opens with the protagonist bathing a young woman, seated in the shower looking immobile, sad, underweight, too weakened by illness to even complete a simple movement. She is so weak that when he later tends to her body, we wonder whether she is dead.
It is painful to watch these terminally ill patients, their quotidian a terrifying reminder of our own fragility and mortality. The film may also appear painstakingly slow, but we soon get into the rhythm as we penetrate into this banal yet fascinating man’s daily routines.
Tim Roth is David, a homecare nurse who is conscientious as a professional but invests too much in his patients’ lives. Each of his gestures is careful and caring, his movements mechanical and acted out by Roth in a manner that gives us hints into his character, never quite revealing anything right away.
David is compassionate, but he often crosses boundaries with his tendency to develop relationships with his patients. He even appropriates their lives, claiming the young woman from the opening scenes is his wife or that he’s an architect like his middle-aged stroke patient with whom he develops an unhealthy bond — they even watch porn together and David works extra shifts to be with him. Like with all of his other patients, this bond doesn’t go beyond “friendship,” yet it is disturbing because he invites himself into their lives, imposing his presence to the detriment of the patient’s family.
And the man’s family does not appreciate this over-caring and threaten to sue him, leading the agency that employs him to dismiss him.
Despite this personal investment in his patients, David is otherwise enigmatic, disconnected, almost indifferent. He never loses his cool or unravels except when he asks for a fresh towel from the gym attendant. His daily life is as automated as his professional one. He goes to the gym, checks his med student daughter’s Facebook page. We sense a family fissure and a lack of contact with her. When he finally reconnects with her, it almost seems awkward to watch. These spoken scenes evoke a lot less than the ones where he is working or interacting with his clients. His robotic movements are indeed more communicative, leading U.S. To question how Roth prepared for the role.
David’s stoic face is closed and reposed, and we wonder if a part of him has died along with his patients. Or someone else. When his daughter asks, “Do you ever think about him?” she follows up with another question where something sinister is implied. And we kind of get that he may be trying to make up for something by devoting himself to others. He is more in tune with his patients than his own family.
Raising certain ethical and moral questions (I won’t spoil), Chronic is intelligent and as deranged as Roth’s performance, one of the most transcendent in this year’s Official Selection.