Toward the beginning of Chronic, the small film from Mexican director Michel Franco that enchanted Cannes judges in 2015 (it won Best Screenplay) and opens this week in the United States, a man scrolls through a younger woman’s Facebook photos. His mouse hovers over the “friend request” button—they aren’t connected—but he doesn’t click. Instead, the static images of the photographs fill the screen for a few seconds, one after the other, and then he abruptly closes the laptop.
In this scene, Franco presents his own movie in microcosm. Chronic, about a male hospice nurse who appears to lose himself in the day-to-day care of his dying patients, moves from static moment to static moment but struggles to make a connection. We watch David (played in stoic, professional poker face by Tim Roth) sponge off a naked woman who is too weak to move. We watch him jog, drive, prepare tomatoes and mozzarella, attend a funeral, and sit in a hospital waiting room. But there is no score, no exposition, very little dialogue, and almost nothing upon which to hang an emotional bond with the characters in the picture frame. We see only the outside of David and the sad fog of sick people and family members moving around him. Then the window shuts.
The film focuses on David’s tendency to forge close and unsettling bonds with his patients, even as his emotions—and theirs—are withheld from us. Unfailingly gentle, efficient, and diligent, David is also oddly dependent on the men and women for whom he performs small acts of comfort. There is the young woman with AIDS; the gruff, half-paralyzed divorcée; the proud grandmother who begs David to euthanize her; the sullen teenager in a wheelchair. He picks up extra shifts, sending away the night nurses, and weaves details about their lives into his conversations with strangers—at one point claiming to a bookstore clerk that he, not the man he’s just left, is an architect specializing in “functional buildings.” When a patient he’s tended to for 21 years dies, he cleans her body with a calm, unreadable expression, then tells an engaged couple at a bar that he is a widower.
None of this is sinister, only sad, especially as the film filters in teasing details about David’s past: He is grieving a son whom he may have helped to die; he is estranged from his wife and daughter (the luminous girl in the Facebook photographs); he spends his spare time jogging to nowhere. David, with his sensitive, steady presence, has the melancholy honor of being more useful to the chronically ill than their family members are—a bitter fact that causes some relatives to lash out, as if against their own helplessness, and others to draw closer to him. But David rebuffs anyone whom the approach of death has not turned inward. When a former patient’s niece invites him to breakfast, he literally flees out of the car into a cemetery.
David’s connection to his daughter (Sarah Sutherland) is a possible lifeline, albeit fragile. (Significantly, she’s studying medicine in college.) John (Michael Cristofer), a stroke patient, serves as her irritable foil, declaring that “women are unbearable” before enlisting David’s help to play porn on his iPad. When John’s children discover the porn, they threaten to sue David for sexual harassment—a horrifying charge made more haunting and complicated by our intuition that David’s relationships with his patients are inappropriate, just not in the predatory way the family suspects.
At 93 minutes, Chronic felt unbearable to sit through, at once intimate and difficult, boring and acute. Its tone aspires to the numbness of a limb pinned for too long under a heavy weight. Roth’s impassive face is the height of competent discretion, whether he is peeling off the streaked clothes of a chemotherapy patient who has soiled herself or gathering a stroke victim into an awkward embrace. Nothing happens, and at the same time, the worst things happen, as if each scene formed an oil painting in a dour Northern Renaissance exhibit: Still Life With Vomit. Old Man Grimacing in Bed.
With its static scenes and dispassionate, almost documentary-style camerawork, Chronic seems to be circling a point about the mysterious equilibrium of the sick. Yes, David’s patients need him, and they surrender their dignity in awful ways, but there’s a grave self-sufficiency to them, arranging silverware on the table while cancer gnaws at their organs or letting their eyelids flutter closed in the bath. They’ve withdrawn from life and ask only for small things. David covets this existence but stands apart from it. “Can I get you anything?” he asks the boy in the wheelchair at one point. “Fuck off,” the boy replies.
David could perform a thousand tasks, and none of them would make a difference. So could Franco, and maybe that’s why he chooses to do so little. The end of Chronic is shocking, a poetically just act of extravagance that the film spends its run time earning. How much misery can you accrete to the human condition before the screen goes black of its own volition? The answer may be 93 minutes, but I needed significantly fewer to crave the cool embrace of the void.