Review: Smart and angry ‘Chronicle’ pushes superhero genre past the breaking point

My first reaction to “Chronicle” would be to wildly overreact simply because it does so much so well and with such confidence.

It is, at heart, though, a modest accomplishment, and that’s entirely by design.  This is not a franchise kickstarter, a giant broad-appeal down-the-middle genre movie that was designed to sell lunchboxes and Happy Meals.  Whatever this film is, whatever its pleasures or achievements, it feels personal and intentionally scaled, and it absolutely hits the target for which it aims.  A male “Carrie” for the 21st century, a skeptical, heartbroken reaction to the nonstop horseshit of the “chosen one” myth that has been force fed a generation ad nauseam, “Chronicle” is lean and scary and sad, and director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis have ample reason to be proud of what they’ve done.

Hollywood’s nonstop attempt to wring cash from superhero tropes was on full display in the trailers I saw in front of the movie tonight.  “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises” look to be sure-fire monster hits this summer, and both will cost an arm and a leg getting there.  There was lots of CG firepower on display in trailers for “Battleship” and “John Carter” and “Men In Black 3.”  All of it looked and felt familiar, and no doubt will look and feel familiar when I see the finished films as well.  That’s what Hollywood does best right now… familiar.

It’s no surprise, for example, that they keep struggling to figure out how to remake “Akira” as a live-action film for American audiences.  It’s a terrible idea, but it’s gotten in their heads that anime has been big and steady business for a while and hasn’t really been fully exploited by Hollywood and if there’s any anime title that you could argue “everyone knows” at this point, it would be “Akira.”  I think before Warner Bros. commits to a giant budget version of the film, though, they might want to look at what Trank and Landis pulled off here, because in many ways, they’ve been beat at their own game before they ever got to play.

Like Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop,” this is a movie that plays like it was adapted from a comic book, with a very specific and polished energy, but which was not adapted from anything.  And like “Robocop,” it would seem inaccurate to really claim that this is a “superhero” movie.  Robocop is not, by any conventional definition of morality, a hero.  In the context of that film, he’s a ghost.  He’s not seeking justice; he’s seeking revenge on the men who killed him.  He’s a lingering memory, a personality rattling around inside of a bullet casing, just waiting to punch a hole in the sonofabitch who took his life.

Likewise, it’s almost unfair to say that “Chronicle” is a riff on superhero tropes when it’s never really about the idea of heroics or self-sacrifice.  Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and popular kid Steve (Michael B. Jordan) never stop to have Tarantino-style pop culture conversations about the abilities they begin to display after they come in contact with a bizarre object that fell from the sky during a barn party, and I thank god for that.  The worst thing that could have happened to this film would have been to specifically play off of any existing pop cultural memories.  Even in passing, that would have grounded this and made it feel like a reaction instead of an honest exploration of what happens to these characters.  They’re not really friends when it happens.  Andrew is a troubled kid with a sick mom and a drunken angry asshole father, and Matt’s his cousin, his one connection to high school culture, but they’re almost friends by default instead of genuine affection.  Steve’s just in the wrong place at the right time.  Each of these characters is etched with affection and empathy by the writing and by the truly rich performances of the three leads.

DeHaan is probably going to get the biggest pop from the film, and he’s certainly got the flashiest role.  If this is, as I said, a 21st century male version of “Carrie,” then DeHaan’s the new Sissy Spacek.  The difference is that once things start to develop, Matt and Steve really do become close to Andrew.  As they all manifest powers and learn what they can do, there is a real bond between them.  When the kids reached out to Carrie, it was simply so they could set her up for a fall, and King was stacking the deck in the book just as DePalma stacked it in the movie.  The whole world was against Carrie and when she unleashed hell, everyone got what they had coming.  Here, Andrew is so damaged, so worn down from all the years he was on his own without friends that when he is offered real friendship and when he is finally accepted for who he is, he can’t recognize it.  When Andrew goes all Dark Phoenix, it’s not fitting, it’s heartbreaking.  The film does a good job making all three guys really likable and worth investing in, and I didn’t want to see things fall apart.  That’s good.  That’s the way it should play.

Now… look how far into the review I am.  Do you realize I’m just now getting around to mentioning the phrase “found footage”?  Says something about how strong this movie is that the narrative framework on which things hang is this low on a list of things worth discussing.  It is indeed all told from the point of view of cameras, something which becomes particularly crafty towards the last third of the movie, and at first, it makes complete sense.  Andrew buys a video camera because he’s tired of his father beating the hell out of him.  He wants proof.  He wants to capture how bad things are.  He wants to make sure he can show someone.  Anyone.  I’ll say this for DeHaan… he appears to have given the other performers full permission to really punch him without reserve in those early scenes.  There’s stage combat, and then there are the brutal, ugly, real punches thrown by a bully in a hallway or his drunken father after waiting all day for payback, and the camera captures them in an almost clinical way.  There’s no hiding at this angle, at this distance.  It made me ache for Andrew to watch him get it that bad, and it made me believe up front that DeHaan was going to push himself in the role.  And he does.  Oh, man, he does.

As the film goes on, Andrew loses track of why he’s filming and instead simply becomes engrossed with the act itself, with the almost sensual feeling of rolling film on quiet moments, on amazing moments, on private moments.  Once he figures with his new powers how to run the camera without holding it, the film’s visual style becomes adventurous, participatory, and cinematographer Matthew Jensen, a TV vet of shows like “Sleeper Cell,” “True Blood,” and “Game Of Thrones,” works well with first-time feature director Trank to give this film a pulse all its own.  Because so much of the film is shot by Andrew without his hands, it really does feel like POV, like him thinking, so there is character revealed in the very art of shot selection.  Why Andrew shoots what he shoots says a lot about his state along the way in the film.  There’s a turning point, a silent moment that is almost stationary, just an angry boy and a tiny spider, that is explosive because of what it communicates emotionally, not because of how many fireworks it sets off.  The idea that Andrew would think it’s okay to shoot a lot of what we see here says just how far he’s fallen by the time he really goes off the rails, and it makes the lead-up to that final stretch of the film hurt even more.

Michael Kelly, a veteran “that guy,” is very good as Andrew’s father, and even he gets to play a few grace notes that at least explain his anger without excusing it.  Michael B. Jordan brings that same centered decency to his work here that made him so good on NBC’s “Parenthood,” and Steve proves to be a much more layered character than the start of the film would suggest.  I think some of that is in the writing, where they never really make easy or obvious choices about who he is, but it’s also in the way Jordan plays him.  He’s a charismatic guy, but there’s also a weight to him, a sense of maturity that tempers his more youthful moments.  Across the board, the young supporting cast does a nice job of playing real high schoolers, and the film feels like an honest reflection of what it must be like in high school right now.

But in the end, it all comes down to Dane DeHaan and Alex Russell, and the film works because they both absolutely inhabit their characters.  They’ve been pushed together for years because of their family ties, but finally, their powers teach them to be real friends, to really see each other.  Russell goes from being this pretentious philosophy-spouting jackass at the start of the film to a looser, more open guy, finally comfortable in his own skin.  For a while, it looks like DeHaan’s Andrew makes the same sort of evolutionary jump.  But his is curdled in progress, and Andrew becomes the worst of what these boys are capable of, all power and no boundaries.  By the time cousin and cousin are fighting their way through a downtown cityscape, the truly spectacular effects work (led by Rhythm & Hues, evidently) takes a backseat to the emotionally ugly nature of what we’re seeing.

A stylistic success loaded with great performances from a young cast, “Chronicle” is more than just good mindless genre fun.  It does its best to leave a mark, and it plays rough.  It is a very good film, and a real pleasure during what so often used to be a fallow period in the theater.  See “Chronicle” on the biggest screen you can, and prepare to have brain, heart, and senses engaged fully by a great example of what happens when you bend a genre till it breaks, resulting in something that we really haven’t seen before.

“Chronicle” opens today.