Josh Trank’s Chronicle is that rare thing in popular cinema: a rowdy, unruly blockbuster that did good business and received strong critical praise, even if said praise often came wrapped in apologist tin. For some, the subject matter was too juvenile; for others, the ideas and themes just seemed a bit too familiar or broad. Either way, everyone agreed the found-footage aesthetic and perspective damaged what might have been a very good movie. It’s a tiresome criticism, if an intermittently spot-on one, but Chronicle, written by Max Landis, progeny of beloved John, needs no exception to be ranked as one of the year’s strongest works thus far.
Despite all the baseless haranguing over the POV camerawork, Chronicle is, in fact, exactly the sort of film that lends substantial weight to the video-diary genre, with its itchy, fickle sense of perspective and loaded psychological implications on viewing and being viewed. The striking first shot sets the film’s chief internal conflict in motion beautifully: Andrew (Dane DeHaan) starts recording his life with an old shoulder-mount camera just as his existence is hitting a new dark low, with his drunken father (Michael Kelly) slamming his fist against his son’s locked door and barking threats. We see his violent family life, his locked, insular room, and, closest to the vest, the camera—the three major barriers that keep Andrew so withdrawn, shy, awkward, and cynical to his peers at school.
The only person who’s loyal to Andrew is his cousin, good-natured Matt (Alex Russell), who’s fine with embarrassingly singing along with radio pop and quoting Schopenhauer within the same ride to school. Jung and Nietzsche are also alluded to within the film’s narrative, which gives a playfully heady undercurrent to Andrew, Matt, and their improbable joint-BFF Steve’s (Michael B. Jordan) transformation following their discovery of a glowing orb buried below the ground. The triptych is suddenly given powers of telekinesis which, as one member points out, works “like a muscle” in this scenario, growing in power and abilities the more they exercise it.
The initially fun-loving trio quickly goes from building and animating Lego structures, blowing girls’ skirts up, and moving a car with their minds to flying, stopping bullets and, in Andrew’s case, turning a stationary camera into a swooping, panning, zooming mechanism of documentation. So, as Andrew’s ambitions concerning his powers grow, so does his ambitions as, essentially, a filmmaker. But an act of sexual humiliation turns the tides for Andrew, reinstating his feelings of isolation and alienation, and Trank’s film persuasively carries this acute character study into the realm of familiar supernatural conflict.
There’s some business involving Matt’s romance with a video blogger (Ashley Hinshaw) and Andrew’s sick mother (Bo Peterson), but Trank and Landis keep their focus tightly held on the central triangle, and it makes the furious conflict that explodes in the film’s fourth quarter resonate with an uncharacteristic sincerity and terror. DeHaan’s measured yet intense performance is convincing to an unnerving degree, but it’s Landis’s deft script that gives Andrew’s gradual villainy an intellectually involving undercurrent, matching the character’s grief over killing one of his closest friends with his powers with acts of senseless, tremendous violence (ripping a school bully’s teeth straight out of his gums, bludgeoning and ruthlessly beating a group of local hoods). And on the other side, there’s Matt, whose powers remain largely personal and private until Andrew’s reign of terror hits a fever pitch, and who’s thankfully never given the sheen of overt heroism despite his sacrifices.
Okay, so the ending in Tibet, complete with sentimental goodbye, is a bit much. Still, it’s far too easy to ignore how Chronicle excels in and often defies its chosen genre until you realize how Bryan Singer, McG, and Matthew Vaughn have all failed at a similar charge, with much bigger budgets and under the veil of an accepted, beloved brand. Unlike those directors and their respective writers, both Trank and Landis deal in complex visions of confusion, ego, torment, and curiosity in youth, and detail how extraordinary power can, at any given moment, either alleviate or weaponize these feelings with consistently thrilling action. There’s no false, easy triumph or unearned tragedy in Chronicle, and its bemoaned aesthetic actually allows for a remarkable amount of the dramatic fat and exposition to be excised from the film. It’s a psychologically aware and exceedingly smart entertainment, narratively trim and tightly edited, and its success is one of those all too quiet assurances that there are remaining oases in the wasteland.
Chronicle is set in Seattle and thusly the film is heavy on rainy grays and calm, dark blues. Fox's highly impressive 1080p transfer captures the subtle gloom of the film, emphasized by these dour colors, and black levels look exceedingly good and are perfectly saturated. Clarity, in terms of both texture and detail, is very good and there's a special artistry to the various film-stock textures that come up as the perspective hyperactively change toward the end of the film. And there are no distracting marks of manipulation from post-production. The audio, with the dialogue clear and out front, is an equally impressive mix with a strong balance between sound effects and the occasional piece of music in back.
The director's cut of Chronicle gives a bit more time to Steve's backstory about his parents' separation, and there are some other, largely unneeded scenes tossed in as well. It's not much, but it's the best you get from this disc, as far as extras go. There's a featured deleted scene with Matt making breakfast with his girlfriend that was left out of the uncut version for good reason, and a camera test of the diner scene where the boys use their powers with forks and knives. There's a short featurette on the CGI work, but it's not very interesting. A theatrical trailer and DVD copy of the film are also included.
Josh Trank's Chronicle is one of those rare and all too quiet reminders that big studios still can fit (relatively) small, smart movies into their lineup, and Fox sends it to Blu-ray with a very strong transfer.