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Chronicle (2012)

Semiotics is an intellectually rigorous method for analysing the mechanics of how we communicate with each other. It gives us a way of examining and attributing a meaning to all the different signs that can be used in our everyday lives. For example, the intention in naming a brand of chocolates “Roses” is to tap into the mythology identifying the flowers with love and beauty. In turn, this associates the chocolates with the idea that they are a perfect gift for a man to give a woman. Such are the wiles of the marketers when making their sales pitches. It’s a process of honing a message and targeting it at potential buyers. Similarly, in the cinema, the director plans each sequence of moving images, the way they are framed, the camera angles, the sound track, the decisions to be made in the editing process, and so on. By convention, certain styles are associated with different types of film, i.e. the visual presentation of a horror film would not be the same as in a romantic drama, but there’s one common denominator. Traditional film-making places the cast in front of the camera and both will move as directed. This produces the familiar sign system we see in the cinema, on television, on YouTube and all other media platforms which will distribute/publish visual content. Chronicle deliberately steps outside the usual paradigms. As an aside, a chronicle is usually a factually accurate record of events in the past. The use of the word as a title, allied with the film-making style, suggests this film is more truthful than is usual.

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) thinking about how to crush his enemies

 

Following in the footsteps of Cloverfield, this is a film ostensibly made up of recovered recordings from various cameras, phones, security systems, and so on. By convention, this gives the images more credibility as evidence of what happened. By abandoning the traditional storytelling styles, Josh Trank, the director, is challenging the audience to “see” the film differently. In doing so, he’s placing an additional intellectual filter between the audience and their identification with the characters. Because we have to respond to constant shifts in our points of reference, we must first identify the source of each set of images and only then resume our empathy with the characters as shown. So, in one sequence we might see through the camera operated by Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) or by Casey Letter (Ashley Hinshaw) or a security camera in a rave, or other partying individuals’ handphones, and so on. The result is to distance us from emotional involvement in the characters’ lives and what happens to them. It’s a film we can admire for the director’s ingenuity in maintaining continuity without obviously cheating (most of the time). It’s not a film you come out of the cinema shaking your head and shouting “Wow!” or whatever you shout to demonstrate satisfaction to the world. It’s too clever for it’s own good and would probably have been far more effective had it played by the usual rules of film-making. If the method of constructing the film is familiar, we can forget the medium for delivering the message and just enjoy the message. But when we see a shot of a front door with a full-length mirror to one side showing the person making the recording, we pause to admire the result of the door opening. We now have two figures side-by-side facing the audience while talking to each other. It’s a delightful visual moment that rather drowns out their fumbling attempts at romance.

Steve (Michael B Jordan) surprised by events behind him

 

Although there’s quite a long cast list, the format is a private conversation between three high school students. Andrew Detmar is abused by his father Richard (Michael Kelly) and depressed because his mother is dying. His cousin, Matt Garetty (Alex Russell), is the naturally bright kid who’s dropped out. He sees no point in competing with anyone else to be the cleverest, the geekiest, the weirdest or whatever titles are up for grabs. Then there’s Steve Montgomery (Michael B Jordan) who’s the rich kid with a golden smile and a real chance of being voted the most popular in school. When they explore a hole in the ground and emerge with headaches, you know this is the start of something interesting. Unlike the nerd Peter Parker whose encounter with a spider leads to a role as a crimefighter, this trio are more interested in the Jackass approach to life. So rather than lining up to rescue cats from tree branches, they amuse themselves with pranks. Except, as their powers increase through practice, their victims are increasingly likely to find themselves in some physical danger. That’s the inherent problem with pranks. They are implicitly cruel and often rely on threatened or actual violence.

Matt (Alex Russell) managing to keep a cool head when those about him are losing theirs

 

Had these been relatively normal boys, they would have grown out of this juvenile behaviour but, as is always the way in films such as these, there has to be a weak link. Andrew’s drunken father grows increasingly violent as his own sense of inadequacy and impotence escalates. There’s nothing he can do to prevent his wife moving closer to death. Having lost his job as a firefighter through injury, he cannot even afford the drugs to reduce her pain. He therefore takes his guilt out on Andrew. At first, Andrew becomes self-absorbed, working on strengthening his new powers. Then, under the influence of Steve Montgomery, he has a fleeting moment of popularity which crashes to Earth when a girl exposes his sexual inadequacy. The end, as people say, is nigh. With increasing alienation destroying his relationship with the other two enhanced students, Andrew evolves the idea he’s an alpha predator. His moral compass is lost as he redefines “ordinary” humans as prey which sets up the final confrontation. At least one of the three has to take responsibility to protect humanity since mere humans are going to be cannon fodder. In the best traditions of “superhero” films, there’s then an impressive fight with a predictable outcome.

 

I applaud Josh Trank for his innovative approach, the development of the story has an essential grittiness which I like, and the three young leads give excellent performances. Chronicle has everything going for it and it’s genuinely worth seeing. I just have the sense of how much better it would have been had a young director, for once, played it safe.

 

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