Tim Roth needs to be seen more often. He was annoyingly superior in the 2009-2011 “Lie to Me” TV series as Dr. Cal Lightman and he was hatefully racist as George Wallace in last year’s “Selma.” In “Chronic,” he is simply David, a man of good intentions, but questionable emotional stability.
Written and directed by Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco, “Chronic” was awarded best screenplay at Cannes this year. The topic isn’t romantic love but familial love and how it is expressed in death. Instead of focusing on the person dying, or even the death’s effect on a close family member, “Chronic” looks at how someone who deals with the act of dying daily handles the sadness.
During the film, David takes care patients: the fragile, skeletal thin Sarah (Rachel Pickup), angry stroke patient John (Michael Cristofer) and a bristly cancer patient Martha (Robin Bartlett). One feels that David honestly cares for his patients and there’s a tender respect he shows for Sarah as he showers her. He displays a possessiveness, dismissing the night duty nurse so that he can be with her when she dies. He cleans her dead body. He even shows up at her funeral and in what seems to be an act of professionalism, he declines to discuss Sarah in detail with her own family. Yet then there’s a twist. At a bar, he meets a couple celebrating their engagement. They make small talk and then we watch their joy turn into awkward sympathy. David tells them that his wife, Sarah, had just died from a long-term illness.
That odd appropriation of someone else’s life as his own is seen with his next patient, John, who was an architect. He pretends to be an architect, looking at a house that John once built. Does David really find some sort of weird comfort in his little lies or is this a way of avoiding talking about what he really does. One imagines that might make for uncomfortable silences. What does one say to someone who sees death every day and handles one’s father, sister, aunt or brother in that person’s most personal and helpless state? David goes too far with John and the family wants to press charges of abuse against David and still David wants to see him.
Eventually David does go away and find another job. David’s personal life seems a bit dreary. He spies on a young girl. He has no girlfriend. He seems to have no family. All that is revealed and a notion as to why he is so devoted to his patients who are at death’s door. Franco’s script suggests at in the end, we are all closer to death than we truly know.
“Chronic” is making the festival rounds and will be released in the UK in February. This is a thoughtful, low-key approach to a side of death we seldom think about.