Playing David, a British nurse working in America, Roth is hardly ever off screen. Many of the most poignant scenes show David at work in sunny suburban homes, where Franco does not shy away from showing intimate, difficult interactions, where the dignity of patients is often compromised. Roth rises to this considerable challenge, depicting David as a diligent, gentle and compassionate man – the kind of person you’d handpick to look after your dependent loved ones.
Happiest making others comfortable, David is much harder to read away from work, where he has no family, friends or social life. His behaviour is almost always unusual and at times seems downright creepy. The very first scene arouses our suspicion, when we see David parked in a quiet neighbourhood waiting for a young woman to leave her home. He follows her, looks at her photographs on a social networking site and later stays mute when she answers his telephone call.
More questions surface about David’s psychological state. Why is he so reluctant to have coffee with the friendly niece of one of his patients? Why is he so angry and condescending towards an employee at his gym over a small mistake? Most disconcertingly, why does he channel the experiences of his patients to tell lies about his own life during mundane exchanges with strangers? Franco reveals just enough about David that, when a meddlesome family accuses him of patient misconduct, the accusations are hard to completely dismiss as smoke without fire. Even when David’s tragic backstory begins to emerge, partial answers give rise to new, ever more tantalising questions.
Ambiguity is clearly Franco’s main objective, and it’s largely achieved out of what he chooses to show rather than the way he chooses to show it. There’s very little that’s manipulative about Franco’s matter-of-fact style – typified by a static camera at medium distance, no music or artificial lighting, and long takes with no cuts to close-ups or different views on the same action – but this in itself creates a disquieting tone that may or may not be justified by on-screen events.
“Make your own conclusions”, Franco seems to be saying. That’s all very admirable, but by the time the film’s silent credits roll you’re left wishing you’d spent more of the last hour and a half getting to know David and less feeling like a pawn in a talented director’s artful games. After all, life – as Chronic gently reminds us – is all too short.
Review by Kevin Gill