In the 1980s and 1990s, Tim Roth was one of the most exciting of a new generation of British actors. He worked with everyone from Robert Altman to Mike Leigh before playing Mr. Orange in Quentin Tarantino‘s breakout “Reservoir Dogs,” which brought him to the attention of an even wider audience, landing him parts in everything from major blockbusters to auteurist pictures like James Gray‘s “Little Odessa.”
Things have been more mixed recently: Roth moved into U.S. TV for the procedural show “Lie To Me,” and has struggled to book the right kind of roles since it ended, with disasters like last year’s Cannes opener “Grace Of Monaco” and the unintentionally hilarious FIFA movie “United Passions” on his recent résumé. But with a reunion with Tarantino coming up in “The Hateful Eight,” and with his leading role in the first English-language film from Mexican director Michel Franco (“After Lucia“) premiering in competition at Cannes, could we be seeing the arrival of the [Don’t even think about making another -naissance reference! – Ed.]?
In “Chronic,” Franco’s fourth film, Roth sadly doesn’t play Dr. Dre, but Dave, a nurse who seems to specialize in palliative care — looking after the needs of long-term, likely terminal patients, like an elderly, sex-starved stroke victim John (Michael Cristofer). It’s a difficult job, one that requires patience, a sense of humor, and enormous empathy, but it’s clear from what we see that Dave is well-suited. But there’s something else going on with him. In the opening scene, we see him follow a young woman (Sarah Sutherland, daughter of Kiefer, who also plays Julia Louis-Dreyfus‘ child in “Veep“) from her house, and stalk her on Facebook. He goes to a bar and we hear him recycle stories told by a relative of one of his patients, reworking them so that they happened to him. He watches porn with John. In other words, he’s not what you’d expect for someone in such a selfless job. Is his work a form of penance for something or an outlet? What’s really going on?
It’s in the first half of “Chronic,” where these questions remain unanswered, when the film threatens to become something very good. Franco shoots in an austere, Haneke-ish manner, and indeed, in its precise detail and examination of what it is to care for someone, it’s decidedly reminiscent of the helmer’s recent “Amour.” It’s distant but not unfeeling, letting the actors and the steady rhythm take the lead.
Everyone involved is very good (with the particular standout being Robin Bartlett, as David’s cancer-stricken patient in the second half of the movie), but it’s unquestionably Roth’s movie, and it’s probably two decades since he’s had a part this good to play. Roth never makes David saintly or self-regarding in his work, and never overplays the creepiness in the more suspect moments. It’s a nice reminder of what a virtue his underplaying can be to a movie, and it makes the character into a genuinely fascinating contradiction, at least at first.
The trouble is that the more that Franco reveals about his central character, the less interesting he, and the film, becomes. The story behind Sutherland’s character turns out to be benign and prosaic, and Dave himself is given a soapy, unconvincing backstory, which itself feeds into a bit of an eye-roller of a moral dilemma in the film’s closing scenes.
It’s disappointingly conventional, which is at least one thing you can’t say about the film’s very last scene, the absolute worst in a festival that seemed to have loads of them. It’s a cheap, “Gotcha!” moment, not even qualifying as a twist, and it stinks of Franco not having any idea of how to end his film, rather than having anything to say about the character or the situation through the wrap-up.
It’s a stinker of an ending tacked on to a disappointing third act (which is at least lifted up by Bartlett’s performance), and it’s a shame because so much of what went on before was so good: a tender, unsentimental, unexploitative look at an existence that all too many people have, and what it is to be someone who looks after them. For much of the running time, it felt like the most pleasant surprise of the festival, but by the end, “Chronic” is notable mostly as a step in the right direction for its leading man. [B-]