Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Director: Josh Trank
Screenwriters: Max Landis
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan
Chronicle is magnificent pop cinema — thrilling, emotional, and fully invested in its three young, relatable protagonists. It’s high-concept, proto-superhero fun on one hand, and on the other an angry, deadly serious story about the pain of being a teenager, and the burden of discovering what you’re capable of as an adult. Its 83 minutes are filled with an enveloping dread that never dissipates, and more genuine excitement than I’ve felt at the movies since Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Halfway through, I realized I had no idea where Chronicle was headed, and let out a giddy little chuckle.
Yes, Chronicle features another found-footage gimmick; the pointless huffing and puffing involved is what keeps the film from real greatness, but more on that later. The stunt at least takes on some significance when we realize — in the very first shot — that Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) has decided to start filming his life to keep tabs on his abusive dad. (Name another mainstream teen thriller with have the guts to open on the protagonist’s drunk father banging down the door and threatening grievous bodily harm.) Andrew is a pissed-off, dejected high-schooler, having executed the self-fulfilling prophecy of convincing himself that he’s worthless and everyone hates him. Bullied and desperately shy, he’s developed a sardonic wit as a defense mechanism, and barely clings to a friendship with his good-looking, kind-hearted, philosopher-quoting cousin Matt (Alex Russell).
One night, outside a rave party to which Matt dragged Andrew kicking and screaming, the two of them and a third kid — a popular jock named Steve (Michael B. Jordan) — climb into a mysterious hole in the ground, camera in tow. There, they find… something. (The film’s refusal to even speculate about its nature is a genius move.) And that something does… something to them. They find themselves suddenly endowed with a powerful and versatile telekinesis. First it lets them move small objects by will alone. Then bigger ones. Then they learn to generate force fields, and perform other, increasingly scary and dangerous feats. “It’s like a muscle,” Matt theorizes. You can tear it (overexertion causes nosebleeds), but exercise it and it gets stronger.
The part of Chronicle where the protagonists begin to discover and play with their newfound powers recalls countless superhero origin stories, but instead of attempting grandeur, it’s wonderfully playful; I admit it helps that the boys are showing off for the camera. (Despite my distaste for the gimmick, I also dug the narrative ellipses created by the fact that we only see what they choose to record.) The guys bond over the experience, and the film is touchingly assiduous about developing this plot thread; at one point we see them talking each other to sleep at a makeshift slumber party.
Near-omnipotence brings out different aspects of the protagonists’ personalities. Matt, fundamentally level-headed and sane, insists on rules: no using the power on living things, no using it in public. (“We can’t just do things, we have to think first.”) Steve’s instinct is to play mean-spirited but ultimately harmless pranks, shoving a lady’s car across a parking lot and snickering at her confusion — “Yes, it was the black guy this time.” Andrew’s response is more complicated and volatile. His new abilities stroke his bruised ego (he’s the strongest of the group, easily outclassing his friends in both raw power and finesse), and gives him a dangerous outlet to lash out. In one terrific sequence, Andrew puts on a remarkable display at the school talent show, and Chronicle beautifully conveys the thrill of the sudden and massive social embrace that follows. But the night ends badly, and Andrew’s rage is both terrifying and plausible. When you’re bitter, angry, and insecure, it’s seriously bad news if you suddenly start feeling invincible. Watching Andrew here made me imagine the moment when the Columbine killers had the epiphany that, wouldn’t you know it, there wasn’t really anything stopping them from marching into their school with guns.
The three lead actors do outstanding work. Michael B. Jordan, so good on The Wire and Friday Night Lights, has the magnetic energy of someone utterly comfortable in his skin. Dane DeHaan, whom I had never seen, is heartbreaking as a teenager tragically emerging from a world of pain and humiliation. Alex Russell, in a total about-face from his villainous role in Wasted on the Young, turns in a performance that’s more straightforward but no less affecting for it.
The action builds to a climax that’s big, loud, and maybe a bit protracted, but it seemed earned, and it’s capped by a coda that is poignant and disarmingly direct, all while setting up a sequel. There’s a level of thought and care on display here that should shame purveyors of generic, mass-produced nonsense like The Darkest Hour. Chronicle is held back only by its found-footage structure, which does occasionally pay dividends, but mostly requires it to go to increasingly silly lengths to justify why the cameras keep rolling. (The nadir is a crucial late-film scene in which the presence of the camera has to be pointedly explained by an off-screen voice during a quiet moment.) It’s irritating and distracting. First-time director Josh Trank is clearly a major talent, and I wished he’d just make his movie.
— Eugene Novikov