Just one month after The Devil Inside seemingly ruined the found footage film for everyone, along comes Chronicle, a sci-fi tinged powerhouse of a movie that single-handedly saves the sub-genre to stand as quite possibly the best example of the format. Even more than the iconic Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, Chronicle dares to tell a dark and bold story that actually feels painfully real and heartbreaking despite being somewhat of a superhero origin story.
The film opens as unflinchingly as possible. Shy and emotionally damaged Seattle teenager Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) has recently bought a video camera to document attacks by his abusive, drunken father and the final days of his mother, who’s in the final stages of terminal cancer. Andrew brings the camera everywhere he goes almost as if it’s a security blanket for him to inoculate himself from the outside world. His only real “friend” is his pseudo-intellectual cousin Matt (Alex Russell), who seemingly thinks everything “cool” is beneath him.
One night outside a rave where Andrew nearly gets the crap beaten out of him for accidentally filming some drunken bro’s girlfriend, Matt and the coolest kid in school/future shoe-in for class president Steve (Friday Night Lights’ Michael B. Jordan), force a worried Andrew into using his camera to document a mysterious cavern deep in the woods that houses a giant glowing crystal. After coming in contact with the crystal, the boys begin to develop telekinetic powers allowing them to move and manipulate matter. At first, they strengthen their powers with an escalating series of silly dares and childish pranks (as teenagers are naturally wont to do even without superpowers), but when the more mature Andrew begins to question his friends commitment to doing something with these powers, fissures in their close friendship quickly begin to develop leaving Steve and Matt to question Andrew’s very sanity.
First time feature director and co-writer Josh Trank and writer Max Landis (son of Blues Brothers director John) have crafted the best thought out found footage movie ever created. They know the scope of their film is bigger than simply having one camera statically shoot everything, so they take the time of creating other ways for footage to be incorporated into a film. Unlike many film of this nature, the question of who actually edited the footage for this film becomes refreshingly vague and something that a satisfying debate can actually be made from. The film beautifully incorporates digital video, cell phones, security cameras, military cameras, and in the bravura finale every camera type known to man floating all around the main characters.
The technical specs of Chronicle are marvellous considering how little the film probably cost to make. Most of the budget seems saved up to mount one of the most dazzling, show-stopping endings to a film in recent memory, but even simple sequences where the boys discover they can fly and they use their power to goof off and play football in the clouds are just as gorgeously rendered. The concept that Andrew can also let the camera float in mid-air and move it leads to some stunning cinematography and the most shocking and subtle payoff in a found footage film ever.
While the technical merits of Chronicle could be doted on for days, Landis and Trank’s script delivers the much needed emotion that a thousand camera tricks could never cover up. While not exactly a “slow burn,” things escalate quite quickly and suddenly down the stretch of the film’s taut 84 minute running time. The pacing works beautifully since the character the film is based around (Andrew) lives a life of constant torment at home and bullying at school. Andrew only finds fleeting moments of reprieve from his daily life before something brings him crashing down to Earth. As Andrew’s personal life gets worse and worse, the movie takes on a vastly different, but wholly appropriate tone.
The three leads all sell the tone extremely well. Jones does the whole “sympathetic jock and consummate politician” routine with real, unforced sympathy. Steve might very well be the most genuine human being of the three. Russell fills the role of “put upon best friend” nicely, and gets to show some real range when he’s unwillingly forced into taking action against Andrew. The movie, however, belongs to DeHaan for making Andrew one of the most sympathetic and occasionally frightening characters to grace the screen in some time. The movie’s effort to show the full arc of DeHaan’s character in almost painful detail – especially from a format meant to show only brief moments in the lives of people – allows the actor to commit fully to his performance. It’s easily the best performance ever in a found footage film.
Chronicle works because it makes the uncanny feel like it’s actually happening in front of the viewer’s eyes. Even the film’s more cinematic moments come after viewers have been eased into an escalating situation. The characters are lush without being Hollywood constructs of teenagers. Despite having more familiar faces than most found footage film, one forgets they are watching actors. These feel like real people, with real problems, and extraordinary powers. These are people any of us could know, and by the end of the film that feeling will be both a comfort and a curse. In short, there’s too much great about this movie to spoil it any further and really nothing at all that can be said against it.