A philosopher, a jock and a tormented loner are endowed with telekinetic powers after stumbling upon a hole and a psionic device of undetermined origin, in Josh Trank’s enjoyable debut. If you need to guess which of the three lapses into megalomania and fascism, becoming the audience’s vicarious instrument of revenge against authority, then this is probably your first movie too. There are worse introductions.
Chronicle is an engaging, if conceptually flawed thriller, and something of a pixelated magic show. Trank, a mere whippersnapper at 26, marks the piece as Bildungsroman by showing admirable concern for the moral and psychological makeup of his troubled teen protagonist. We’re grateful for that concern. A visual effect isn’t brain food, y’know.
Invited to consider, as in parent stories like Stephen King’s Carrie, whether the brutal Darwinian bolthole that we call adolescence is to blame for the escalating madness that follows, the movie’s conclusions seem at odds with its marketing hook. In keeping with the bipolar nature of the piece, the poster asks the question “what are you capable of?”, suggesting the responsibility remains with the individual. The great thing about Carrie was that it didn’t sit on the fence this way. Chronicle’s philosophical evenhandedness adds moral ambiguity but subtracts focus. Still, half a brain trumps a hollow skull.
Ostensibly an addition to the found footage sub-genre (though it isn’t clear how the footage was found as we’ll see), Trank’s film embraces the ubiquity of visual media in homes, businesses and on personal devices, making the wry observation that a continuous line of action can be patched together using this confluence of sources. Dane DeHaan’s withered teen taps nicely into the self-obsession that characterises this never ending wave of visual vomit, resolving to record himself around the clock. The close identification with Andrew that follows leaves the indelible stain of foreboding on the audience. This is the smart decision that ultimate saves Chronicle from itself, for there’s a tension in the movie’s architecture that remains unresolved; a tension that would sink a less assured film.
That tension is the ontological versus the aesthetic. What does that mean? Beats me. Probably that you gain a sense of immediacy from the “first person” camera – the sense of being immersed in the action as it unfolds, but there’s a problem: If the footage comes from a multitude of sources – Andrew’s two cameras, CCTV tapes, television, phones and finally a camcorder flown to Tibet and left there while the remaining telekinetkid flies off, how was the footage collated and edited into a coherent narrative? Did God chronicle the chronicle using footage backed up to his iCloud; footage ported to the divine edition of Final Cut Pro?
The “found footage” movie holds you close with its realist aesthetic, inviting you to believe you’re watching life caught in the act. The archetypes – Cannibal Holocaust, Blair Witch – made it easy. These were single source narratives that the audience understood to be recovered. Recent additions, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, didn’t screw with that convention, but Chronicle is so preoccupied with achieving the same effect that it forgets to introduce a plausible mechanism for the recovery and collation of its footage.
Trank might have hoped that this conceptual lapse would be overlooked, given the care he’s taken with the aesthetic and the imagination he’s employed in keeping his camera mobile (the manipulation of the camcorder by telekinesis being a clever conceit that frees the in-narrative camera, allowing for God’s eye shots unburdened by the character’s movements), but that’s wanting it both ways. Either your movie is grounded in reality or it’s not. If it is, the acquired footage and the technology employed in acquiring it must be governed by real world considerations. If the editor and by extension, the movie, is constituted in the ether then the film is undone by its own internal logic.